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The Five Language Registers

Language registers are more numerous and complex than this list suggests, but it is a good place to start understanding how to communicate differently with different audiences, for different purposes, and in different situations.

Mark Messer

on 31 December 2013

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Transcript of The Five Language Registers


1. Frozen/Static
2. Formal/Regulated
3. Consultative/Professional
4. Casual/Group
5. Intimate/Personal
These are specific written or oral acts that never change, hence the name "frozen" or "static." Because they don't change, they sometimes include old grammar or vocabulary.
They are cultural, usually related to the religions, laws, or customs of the community. They are usually unidirectional (one direction). (They don't involve back-and-forth communication.)
Some examples include the "golden rule" (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.), national anthems, religious books, laws, famous speeches, the Bill of Rights, etc.
Each one usually has a specific audience, purpose, and context. For example, a country's national anthem is played when someone wins an Olympic gold medal (context) for the athletes and the viewers (audience) to honor the nation (purpose).
They might be formal or casual, and emotional or intellectual. Because they can be very different from each other, this isn't a
which can be learned. Each instance must be learned separately.
Learning them helps you to become a member of a cultural group or community. They are often passed down from generation to generation, or preserved in books which are important to a group.
These are specific written or oral acts that follow similar rules about their form, hence the names "regulated" and "formal."
They are usually informative, but pure information can be boring, so they are sometimes persuasive, too. They are typically unidirectional. ("Let ME tell YOU some information, or what to do, think, or believe.")
Some examples include
a research paper
or an academic presentation, announcements in the newspaper,
a judge's pronouncement,
or a religious sermon.
These acts are formal, NOT casual. They are mostly intellectual and informational, NOT emotional (but sometimes emotions are used to persuade). Because they follow a form, the general rules for using them can be learned.
, and
may be
to explain a scientific idea

to any interested person
in a scientific magazine or website
to announce a criminal's punishment

to the media and the people in a courtroom

after a criminal trial
Learning the rules for formal-regulated speech and writing shows that you are well educated and helps you to use language differently in different situations.
Consultative-professional acts follow most of the same rules as formal-regulated speech and writing, but have a different general purpose:
to get help. These acts are bidirectional (back and forth) or sometimes multi-directional.
Some examples include a doctor's appointment, a meeting with the school principal, or any first meeting between strangers.
The purpose is very specific (to get help with something. The audience is small and specific (the helper[s] and the helpee[s]). The context is also specific (at a hospital after an injury, or at an information desk).
These acts are generally formal. They also involve the exchange of information. However, casual speech might be used to calm an injured person down, and emotions might be used to persuade someone to give help.
Learning how to use consultative-professional register well helps you get what you want or need from someone. It also shows strangers that you respect them, and that they should respect you and treat you as an equal. Practicing this can also help you develop the vocabulary and grammar used in academic writing (formal-regulated register), which could boost your grades.
Casual-group register is used in writing and speech with people in the same group, team, etc.
Casual-group communicative acts don't follow standard societal rules, but follow the specific rules and "norms" of the group. They have various purposes and are multi-directional.
Some examples include a team victory celebration, lunch with friends, a school dance, or dinner with friendly coworkers.
There could be one or more general purposes for these acts (to build team spirit, to have fun, etc.). The audience of each of these acts is the group. The context is probably very general (a bus ride after a game, a visit to the mall, etc.)
These acts are very casual, and they are typically spoken, but could also include online chats, emails, texts, etc. Because they follow group "norms," one act in one group may be very different from another act in another group.
Learning how to use casual-group language helps you to bond with the other members and become a part of the group. The members create their own ways of communicating over time.
Which register should I use?
Personal-intimate register, sometimes called "private" register, is used in writing and speech with close family members and close friends.
These communicative acts don't follow standard societal rules, but follow the "norms" of the people in the relationships. They have various purposes and are usually bidirectional.
Some examples of the relationship which use this register are parent-child, couples, spouses, siblings, and best friends.
The audiences for these acts are specific and limited, the people in the relationships. The contexts are very general, basically whatever situation the people are in. The purposes are also very general (to have fun, to become closer, etc.)
These acts are very casual and most often spoken, but could also include a not, an online chat, and email, a text, etc. People in close relationships like these often develop their own ways of communicating.
Learning to use personal-intimate language helps you to show that you are in a special relationship. The people in the relationship create these special ways of communicating over time.
It's easy enough to understand which register is which, but what happens if I use the wrong register?

Changing register can be helpful in certain situations and harmful in others.
A teacher normally speaks to students in consultative register because they are in more formal, academic settings, but if the teacher helps a student with a problem outside of the classroom, he or she may speak more casually.
But if the teacher speaks intimately to the student, the student could feel threatened and might think the teacher is "creepy." This could damage the student-teacher relationship.
A man might speak to his best friend intimately or casually in most situations, but if they meet the friend's coworkers, it might be better to speak formally around them. If they are alone, though, and the man switches to formal register, it tells the friend that he is angry about something.
Students might speak with each other in consultative register in a class discussion, but at the lunch table, speaking in consultative registers sends this message: "I don't want to be your friend."
Once I know which register to use, how do I use the language differently?
Formal/Impersonal Casual/Personal

more structured less structured
tighter looser
more logical less logical
more repetitive less repetitive
more details fewer details
more support less support
more explanation less explanation
Formal/Impersonal Casual/Personal

complete forms contracted forms
academic/exact common/general
scientific/technical no scientific/technical
jargon no jargon
latinate verbs compound verbs
no slang/swearing slang/swearing
few personal pronouns more personal pronouns
no nicknames nicknames
no private words private words
less descriptive richer description
more transitions more conjunctions
uses negative forms uses "not" + word
fewer emotional words more emotional words
Formal/Impersonal Casual/Personal

more complex sentences more simple sentences
longer sentences shorter sentences
more conditionals fewer conditionals
more passive verbs more active verbs
more exact more vague
correctness more important correctness less important
more qualifiers/hedges fewer qualifiers/hedges

Formal/Impersonal Casual/Personal

careful enunciation slurred enunciation
louder softer
assertive tone inquisitive tone

Formal/Impersonal Casual/Personal

more transactional more aligning
more explicit more implicit
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