Learn to evaluate the register for a rhetorical situation so that you use the right diction and sentence structure. Understanding register is critical to adopting the appropriate tone, voice, and persona for a text.

Register is

  • a measure of the formality and appropriateness of a writer’s, speaker’s, knowledge worker’s . . . diction and syntax in relation to the rhetorical situation (especially audience)
  • a socio-historical-cultural construct
    • Discourse communities are defined in part by their unique textual practices. Jargon, for instance, differs across contexts: the doctor may employ medical jargon; the lawyer, legalistic jargon. A researcher in the discipline of psychology would use the jargon and vocabulary of other psychologists and investigators.

Key Concepts: Audience; Code Switching; Rhetorical Stance

You can think of a register as a thermometer: it’s a tool you can use to adjust your diction, sentence structure, media, etc. based on rhetorical analysis. The words writers, speakers, knowledge workers . . . choose (AKA the writer’s diction) 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 dialog.
  • 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.

Register Taxonomies

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. largely punctuated with body language, such as laugs, shurs of shoulders, and even vulgarities. 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 dialog). 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.

Related Concepts

Register is a similar concept to genre: both register and genre are concerned with the social conventions surrounding language practices.