register (language style)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The way you speak to a young child is probably not the same way you speak to a close friend—or, for that matter, the way you would speak to a judge in a courtroom. Those different ways of speaking to different people in different contexts are what we call register. (Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images)


In linguistics, register is one of the many styles or varieties of language determined by such factors as social occasion, contextpurpose, and audience. Also called stylistic variation.

More generally, the term register refers to degrees of formality in language use. The different registers or language styles that we use are sometimes called codes.

"One of the defining features of a register," says linguist George Yule, "is the use of jargon, which is special technical vocabulary (e.g. plaintiff, suffix) associated with a specific area of work or interest.

In social terms, jargon helps to create and maintain connections among those who see themselves as 'insiders' in some way and to exclude 'outsiders'" (The Study of Language, 2014). 

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "record"

Examples and Observations

  • "It fascinates me how differently we all speak in different circumstances. We have levels of formality, as in our clothing. There are very formal occasions, often requiring written English: the job application or the letter to the editor—the dark-suit, serious-tie language, with everything pressed and the lint brushed off. There is our less formal out-in-the-world language—a more comfortable suit, but still respectable. There is language for close friends in the evenings, on weekends—blue-jeans-and-sweat-shirt language, when it’s good to get the tie off. There is family language, even more relaxed, full of grammatical short cuts, family slang, echoes of old jokes that have become intimate shorthand—the language of pajamas and uncombed hair. Finally, there is the language with no clothes on; the talk of couples—murmurs, sighs, grunts—language at its least self-conscious, open, vulnerable, and primitive."
    (Robert MacNeil, Wordstruck: A Memoir. Viking, 1989)

  • "'Coming to see us soon, Ducky?' Donna called over to me. I wiped the window quick. 'Matty's missing you.'

    "Her voice changed when she talked to me, like I was a different species or something. Mum always talked to us like we were adults."
    (C.J. Flood, Infinite Sky. Atheneum, 2014)

  • "And the Lady Irina said, 'Do that again and I'll hit you!' The way she spoke! You wouldn't speak to a man like that up in our village, I can tell you! I was frightened they might hurt her."
    (Michael Pearce, A Dead Man in Athens. Carroll & Graf, 2006)

  • Language in Context
    "A register is a variety of a language that is appropriate in specific situations. For example, a language may have a formal register, to be used in making speeches, and an informal register, to be used in ordinary conversation. A language might also have a scientific register, to be used in discussing laboratory experiments, or a joking register, to be used in teasing and taunting. Some registers may enjoy more prestige than others, and some may be looked down on. Some people may be able to shift registers easily, and others may have difficulty understanding registers used by groups that they don't belong to." 
    (Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer, The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, 3rd ed. Cengage, 2012)

  • Language Styles
    "Every native speaker is normally in command of several different language styles, sometimes called registers, which are varied according to the topic under discussion, the formality of the occasion, and the medium used (speech, writing, or sign).

    "Adapting language to suit the topic is a fairly straightforward matter. Many activities have a specialized vocabulary. If you are playing a ball game, you need to know that 'zero' is a duck in cricket, love in tennis, and nil in soccer. If you have a drink with friends in a pub, you need to know greetings such as: Cheers! Here's to your good health!

    "Other types of variation are less clearcut. The same person might utter any of the following three sentences, depending on the circumstances:
    I should be grateful if you would make less noise.
    Please be quiet.
    Shut up!
    Here the utterances range from a high or formal style, down to a low or informal one—and the choice of a high or low style is partly a matter of politeness."
    (Jean Aitchison, Teach Yourself Linguistics. Hodder, 2003)
  • Participants in an Exchange
    "Like variation in our manner of dress, stylistic variations in language cannot be judged as appropriate or not without reference to the participants in the interchange (i.e., speaker and listener or reader and writer). For example, you would not speak to a 5-year-old child, an intimate friend, and a professor using the same style of speech. Using the term eleemosynary 'charitable' would probably be inappropriate for the child and the friend, while using number one 'urinate' would probably be inappropriate for the friend and the professor."
    (Frank Parker and Kathryn Riley, Linguistics for Non-Linguists, 3rd ed. Allyn & Bacon, 1999)

  • Dialect and Register
    "[M.A.K.] Halliday et al. ([The Linguisitic Sciences and Language Teaching,] 1964) drew a primary distinction between two types of language variety: dialect, which they defined as variety according to the user, and register, which they defined as variety according to the use. The dialect is what a person speaks, determined by who he is; the register is what a person is speaking, determined by what he is doing at the time."
    (M.A.K. Halliday, "Language as Social Semiotic." Language and Literacy in Social Practice: A Reader, ed. by Janet Maybin. Multilingual Matters, 1994)

Pronunciation: REH-je-ster