The first question you may be asking is, what is register in English?
Language register in English is the scale of formality we use when we write and speak.
There are five basic levels describing different types of register or formality definition in writing and speaking.
They are, high formal, formal, neutral, informal and vulgar.
These are also sometimes called address registers. They work to increase the variety of a language in writing and speaking and define formal and informal language.
The five basic English language register definition levels
It is the level of language that you would use on formal occasions to address the Queen, an archbishop, president or prime minister.
It is used to when you speak or write to your boss, a client or in a transactional letter. The formal language definition is also called the consultative register. You use it when, for example, referring to talking to your doctor and using the polite address of Dr.
It is the formal or conventional language level you would use in report writing, business plans and marketing presentations.
You use informal or casual register when you speak to or write emails to friends, family or work colleagues.
The vulgar definition is not the language of a smutty joke. It is an intimate register that contains the type of language we use when we talk to immediate family members, very close friends, a child or a family pet.
Although it is not covered in this article, there is one other form of register.
Frozen or static register is language that remains unchanged due to custom or etiquette, particularly in printed or often repeated form. Examples include biblical quotations, oaths or a pledge of allegiance.
English register and the ‘you’ problem
For writers, it is very important to know how to use the different formality levels. Register is a tool that you can use to develop a style, especially in dialogue, to give characters a consistent voice using natural language.
Unlike many Latin languages, which have dedicated formal and informal subject pronoun and verb conjugations, English uses a far more complex array of vocabulary and grammar structures to govern register.
In French, for instance, these two phrases that ask “how are you?” clearly identify formality because French has two forms of the second person subject pronoun, you.
Vous allez bien? Formal
Tu vas bien? Informal
The first is formal using vous and would be used with people who are not close friends, such as superiors, acquaintances and strangers.
The second is informal using tu and it is used with family, close friends and children.
In English however, we only have one second person subject pronoun, which is you.
How do you use and control register and formality consistently in English?
Language register, or formality definition, is controlled by using three language points. They are grammar, vocabulary and punctuation.
These elements are common to all variations of English international register.
The table below shows the key differences between the basic formal and informal registers.
Explanation of English register in writing and speaking.
For centuries in Britain, Anglo-Norman French was the language used by the aristocracy, law courts, formal education in schools, and universities and in some sections of the gentry. Latin was the language of business and the church.
At the time, English was classed as the language of ordinary people. Because of this history of language in Britain, French and to a lesser extent Latin have both remained integrated with modern English.
Therefore, the choice of words and verbs, in particular, based on their etymology govern modern English register.
Latin and French-based verbs are always one full word, quite long, and are generally used in formal writing and speaking.
Most single word Anglo-Saxon verbs are recognisably very short. Think about to do, to hit, to put, to look, to give, to run and to jump. These are informal.
English phrasal verbs are always a short verb plus one or two particles, which are mostly prepositions. Examples are, give up, call in, take off and get on with.
However, if we take a few Latin and French-based verbs such as to receive, to purchase, to comprehend, to appreciate, to tolerate, to schedule, to consider, to approve and to accommodate, they are noticeably much longer.
These formal verbs would be replaced in informal register with to get, to buy, to get, to like, to put up with, to set up, to think about, to okay and to put up.
Common and uncommon words are often words such as linking words. And, but and so are informal, while furthermore, however, and therefore are the formal equivalents.
What is vulgar language or vocabulary? Examples of common or vulgar words and expressions are, ta for thank you, ta-ta for goodbye, tummy for the stomach and belly button for the navel.
For vocabulary register, you can use this general rule of thumb.
You would use long words and verbs if you are wearing formal attire and you attend a formal dinner or formal garden party. But you would short words that are informal when conversing with friends or family.
Register punctuation is defined as contraction and abbreviation both in writing and speaking. Without contractions or abbreviations, it is formal language, and with all contractions and abbreviations, it is informal.
While asap, memo and HQ are informal because they are abbreviations, as soon as possible, memorandum and headquarters are formal because they are written or said in full.
As for contraction, when speaking to a friend, one might say, “I wouldn’t’ve baked a cake if I’d known you weren’t coming.”
But if this phrase were used when speaking to your boss it would change to the formal structure of, “I would not have arranged the meeting if I had known you would not be available.”
Another example is that the modal verb will is always used in full in formal register, and always contracted in informal language. We will arrive as compared to we’ll arrive.
The same rule applies to the verb can in the negative.
I can’t come on Friday. Informal.
I cannot (or can not) attend on Friday. Formal.
While the structures noted in the table are mostly self-explanatory, the ones that do need a little explanation are noun and verb phrases.
Simply put, a noun phrase uses an object as the subject of a phrase, and not a subject pronoun or name.
Often this results in creating the passive voice. For instance:
Joe and Charles attended the meeting. Informal.
The meeting was attended by Joe and Charles. Formal.
Joe and Charles thought the meeting was a success. Informal.
The meeting was thought to have been a success. Formal.
Robert Mortimer built the house in 1789. Informal.
The house was built in 1789 by Robert Mortimer. Formal.
Mary and Ryan went to a formal dance on Saturday. Informal.
The formal dance was attended by Mary and Ryan. Formal.
The last important point is in constructing correct indirect questions.
Care should always be taken to ensure that only one question structure is used in the complete phrase, which always means structuring the first verb phrase as the question and the second verb phrase in statement order.
In the two examples below, the first moves the verb to be, and in the second, the auxiliary do is dropped in the indirect, or polite question form.
What is your name? This is a direct question.
Could you please tell me what your name is? This is an indirect question.
Do you have time for a quick chat? This is a direct question.
I was wondering if you have time for a quick chat? This is an indirect question.
Highlighting the differences in language register formality
When you learn how to write a formal letter there are a number of conventions you need to follow.
With formal letter writing you know that you should write Dear Sir or Madam before the paragraph of your letter and Yours sincerely or Yours faithfully at the end.
Depending on letter format styles in different countries, you might put the street address of the person in the top right hand corner of the page.
The sender’s address would then be on the left.
For some, it is a good idea to left justify the body of the letter. For others, it could be to fully justify so that the text is equally spaced on both sides of the page.
For a business letter or cover letter, there are many options and standards. However, these rules and guides are not governed by the use of register. Salutations and layout are protocols that can differ greatly from country to country.
However, when it comes to writing the letter, the body of the text will use register to control formal writing.
Here are two example forms of a letter, without salutations. Both are concerning the same subjects but written in different registers.
Example formal letter
Thank you for your letter we received on the 14th of September 2018.
A copy has been sent to company headquarters in addition to a memorandum concerning your financial situation.
A meeting has been scheduled for the 3rd October 2018 at 11 am to discuss your request for a further bank loan. Therefore, please inform us of your availability for this meeting at the earliest opportunity.
However, a number of issues concerning your income and expenditure may be queried prior to a loan being granted.
Furthermore, the General Manager needs to be contacted in order to authorise bank loans of this nature. Moreover, your previous failure to meet payment arrangements will first have to be considered.
Nevertheless, in the interim, you are required to complete the enclosed business plan, which should be brought to the meeting.
Example informal letter
Thanks for your letter. We got it on 14 Sept.
We’ve sent a copy to comp. H.Q. along with a memo re. your financial situation. I’ve set a meeting for 3 Oct at 11 am to talk about another bank loan.
So, please let us know if you can make it a.s.a.p. But, we might ask you a few things to do with your inc. and exp. before giving you a loan.
Also, I need to get in touch with the G.M. to okay it.
Plus, we’ll first have to think about the last time you didn’t keep up with your payments. Anyway, in the meantime, you need to fill in this business plan. Bring it to the meeting with you.
Compare the changes from the first letter to the second letter to understand how the formality has been changed by the use of grammar, vocabulary, and punctuation.
The ability to maintain consistent register is a tool all writers need to master, because it is a way to avoid long descriptive phrases of how a character says something, or worse, using adverbs to describe how a character speaks.
Register allows a fiction writer to maintain a consistent voice for characters and to give consistency to the narrative. All of this can be controlled by the correct use and control of register in English.
If you are writing fiction and your character is wearing a suit or a formal dress, they should probably be using formal register. If dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, then perhaps informal or even vulgar language would be more suitable.
The most important point to remember is that you should never mix formal and informal registers. You can refer to the table above to ensure that you stay in your selected level of formality.
While there are some minor differences in register between United States and British English, the basic rules of maintaining register are relatively consistent in all forms of English.