Register

Learn about Register, a linguistic concept. Use Register as a measure of audience awareness and clarity in communication. Inform your efforts to engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning. Learn about different ways to assess Register. Consider Martin Joos' 5 registers: 1. Casual, 2. Consultative, 3. Formal, 4. Frozen, 5. Intimate.    
What is Register? Photo of The Capela dos Ossos in Portugal - the interior walls are decorated with human skulls and bones. What is Register? Photo of The Capela dos Ossos in Portugal - the interior walls are decorated with human skulls and bones.

What is Register?

Register, in Linguistics, is the way a writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . adjusts what they say (semantics) and how they say it (stylistics) to account for the occasion—their rhetorical situation.

  • For instance, you are likely to adjust the level of formality you use in your speech and writing (e.g., diction, sentence structure, evidence) according to the social situation. Power differentials between people affect the Register they adopt when communicating with one another.

Related Concepts: Audience; Code Switching; Rhetorical Stance; Style; Tone; Voice; Persona


Halliday & Hasan’s Model of Register

Register, according to M.A.K Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan, is “the set of meanings, the configuration of semantic patterns, that are typically drawn upon under the specified conditions, along with the words and structures that are used in the realization of these meanings” (p. 23).

For Halliday and Hasan, the register is composed of three attributes:

  1. Field:
    • “The FIELD is the total event, in which the text is functioning, together with the purposive activity of the speaker or writier; it thus includes the subject-matter as one element of it” (p. 23)
  2. Mode:
    • “The MODE is the function of the text in the event, including therefore both the channel taken by the language — spoken or written, extempore or prepared — and its genre, or rhetorical mode . . .”
  3. Tenor:
    • “The TENOR refers to the type of role interaction, the set of relevant social relations, permanent and temporary, among the particpants involved.”

Register v. the Rhetorical Stance

Register is closely tied to the concept of Rhetorical Stance in Rhetoric and Writing Studies. From this perspective, writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning in order to identify “in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle 350 B.C.E.).

Thus, when a writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . adopts a rhetorical stance, they are making informed decisions about the appropriate persona, tone, and voice they should adopt in the text.

How Should I Consider Register When Composing or Editing the Work of Others?

You can think of a register as a thermometer: it’s a tool you can use to adjust your diction, sentence structure, media, genre, etc. based on rhetorical analysis. The words you choose, your diction, should reflect the formality or informality of the rhetorical situation.

Academic writing often calls for the use of formal diction in contrast to the less formal language of everyday conversation. The use of conversational language and informal tone—writing as we speak—in academic papers or business documents is often too casual and may weaken the credibility of the writer. On the other hand, the use of language that is pompous or stuffy can make the writing sound overly complex.

[ Academic Language vs. Colloquial Language ]

When composing, people assess their rhetorical situation. They engage in rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning. We do this all of the time, tacitly, even if we are not aware we are doing it. Rhetorical Knowledge is grounded in habits and social conventions. For instance,

  • if you were trying to explain why you chose a particular topic to study or why you want to work in a particular profession, the words you would use, your diction, would vary depending on your audience and your experience.
  • if you were interviewing for a job or admission to an academic program, you would use formal language. You’d speak in sentences, avoid hyperbole and vulgarities, and you’d give the detailed contextual information about your past achievements in relation to the job or academic program.
  • if you were speaking with friends and family, you’d use informal language: you wouldn’t detail your past accomplishments. You’d probably speak in partial sentences and there might be a lot of dialogue.
  • if you were speaking with a loved one about intimate matters, your language might include words you wouldn’t use in a public setting.

This ability you have to read the rhetorical situation and identify the register you should use to communicate is a crucial step in communication. As a wordsmith, you invariably engage in rhetorical analysis: you weigh the appropriateness of Archaisms, Clichés, Concrete & Sensory Language, Figurative Language, Homonyms, Idioms, Jargon, and Vague Language, Generalizations.

What are Commonplace Types of Registers?

Over the years, scholars have proposed a number of taxonomies for categorizing discourse in texts.

One especially popular taxonomy was proposed by Martin Joos, a linguist, in 1961. Joos theorized five major registers based on five distinct rhetorical situations:

  1. Casual
    • Texts exchanged between friends. These texts may be deeply personal and abbreviated. They rely on shared experiences and values, and they tend to be abbreviated and absent. They tend to break grammar and mechanical conventions. These exchanges are largely punctuated with body language, such as laughs, shrugs of shoulders, and even vulgarities. These exchanges often employ hyperbole.
  2. Consultative
    • Texts between people of unequal power relations, such as doctors and patients, teachers and students, lawyers and clients. These texts tend to be conversational (aka dialogic—i.e., they are characterized by a good bit of back and forth dialogue). This language is much like formal register in the sense it may be detailed, precise, and evidence-based.
  3. Formal
  4. Frozen (aka Static)
    • Texts that don’t change over time (or change very little). Examples of static texts include government constitutions, pledges of allegiance, prayers, and ceremonies.
  5. Intimate
    • Texts between family and loved ones—and perhaps even the self-talk we may engage in when trying to motivate ourselves or solve problems.

Works Cited

Halliday, M.A.K. and Ruqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. NY and Oxon: Routledge, 1976, p. 23.