Levels of Usage: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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An appropriate level of usage is determined by various factors, including subject, audience, and purpose. hdere/Getty Images


Levels of usage is a traditional term for register, or the varieties of language use determined by such factors as social occasion, purpose, and audience. Broad distinctions have commonly been drawn between formal and informal levels of usage. Also known as levels of diction.

Dictionaries often provide usage labels to indicate the contexts in which certain words are generally used. Such labels include colloquial, slang, dialect, nonstandard, and archaic.

Examples and Observations

"Each of us employs a different level of usage (word choice) depending upon whether we are speaking or writing, upon who are our audience, upon the kind of occasion, etc. Different levels of usage are combinations of cultural levels and functional varieties. Included generally in such levels are dialect, ungrammatical speech, slang, illiteracies, and even colloquial language, as well as technical terms and scientific expressions."
(Harry Shaw, Punctuate It Right, 2nd ed. HarperCollins, 1993)

Formal Approaches to Usage

"Because the level of usage that is employed in various situations should be governed by the nature of each situation, any pronouncements concerning the acceptability or unacceptability of such expressions as 'It's me' would be presumptuous. However, in formal speaking and writing situations, in which you are often judged by the appropriateness of your speech habits, you should strive to take a formal approach to usage. In formal situations, if you should err, you should err on the side of formality."

(Gordon Loberger and Kate Shoup, Webster's New World English Grammar Handbook, 2nd ed. Wiley, 2009)

Mixed Levels of Usage

"It is possible to achieve unusual diction by mixing words from different usage levels so that learned literary terms rub elbows with colloquialisms and slang:

Huey [Long] was probably the most indefatigable campaigner and best catch-as-catch-can stumper the demagogically fertile South has yet produced.
"(Hodding Carter)
American perceptions of empire have decline and fall built in. Decline and fall are both the outcome of and the alternative to empire. Which puts Americans in a fine pickle today.
(James Oliver Robertson)

The line between formal and informal styles is not now held so inflexibly as it used to be. Many writers mix literary and colloquial diction with a freedom that would have been frowned upon a generation or two back. . . .

"When the mix does work, a writer achieves not only precision but a variegated 'speech' interesting in itself. . . . In the following passage the journalist A.J. Liebling is describing fight fans, specifically those rooting for the other guy:

Such people may take it upon themselves to disparage the principle you are advising. This disparagement is less often addressed to the man himself (as in 'Gavilan, you're a bum!') than to his opponent, whom they have wrong-headedly picked to win.

Liebling comically contrasts the deliberately inflated diction describing the fans' behavior ('disparage the principle you are advising') and the language they actually use ('Gavilan, you're a bum!')."
(Thomas S. Kane, The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing. Berkley Books, 1988)

Teaching the Levels of Usage

"We should help students note . . . the shifts in usage they make as they write for different purposes to different audiences, and we should build on their instinctive shifts, creating an authentic purpose for learning more about usage issues. Students come to an important understanding about language as they work through writing experiences that use different levels of usage and pay attention to the language differences."

(Deborah Dean, Bringing Grammar to Life. International Reading Association, 2008)


"The ways of describing language varieties so far--levels of usage from the colloquial to the formal to dialects--concern language features shared by communities of various sizes and types. But finally, within all of the languages and varieties, spoken or written, each person retains a set of language habits that are unique to that person. This personal pattern of usage is called an idiolect. . . . Everyone has favorite words, ways of phrasing things, and tendencies to structure sentences in certain ways; these patterns amount to a profile of frequencies for these features."

(Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. Oxford University Press, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Levels of Usage: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/levels-of-usage-language-1691112. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Levels of Usage: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/levels-of-usage-language-1691112 Nordquist, Richard. "Levels of Usage: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/levels-of-usage-language-1691112 (accessed February 6, 2023).