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Concourse 2

Style and Register


These two terms crop up consistently on in-service training course (and elsewhere) but they are used by different people to mean rather different things.  This section is designed to get the trees out of the way of the wood.


Register is used in two distinct ways:

As a variety depending on social setting: language use
By this definition, we employ different registers to suit different social settings.
For example, in some settings we might avoid using slang and words such as ain't because the social pressure is to adopt a more correct and formal tone.  In some writing, such as emails to friends, we might ignore niceties of punctuation and spelling and in other writing we would be very careful to get these just right.
This definition, though now arguably out of date, is often used in language teaching to describe levels of formality when style would be a better term.
The fact that it is an out-of-date and discredited use of the term register cannot, however, be denied.  The distinction between style (a measure of formality) and register (a measure of appropriacy to social setting) has been around for well over 50 years (Stern 1983:125).
As a variety depending on topic: language user
By this definition, we employ different registers depending on the topic of concern and our roles.
Doctors, journalists, carpenters, hotel receptionists, help-line workers and even language teachers have a distinct set of terms and phrases which they use professionally.  Games and sports also have particular lexical items which are characteristic of them and so on.
Allied to this is the notion that register defines language by user rather than use so we have distinctive varieties such as legalese and motherese along with sports commentator language, IT-ese and so on.
Stern (op. cit.), drawing on Halliday, McIntosh and Strevens, 1964, refers to it this way:

Register refer to varieties of a language according to differences in uses demanded by specific social situations, such as advertising, church service, political journalism, shopping, or academic discussion

As we shall shortly see, there is a close relationship between appropriate style and appropriate register but the concepts are fundamentally different.



One sociolinguistic definition of style is

varieties of language viewed from the point of view of formality
(Trudgill, 1992)

Style, properly considered, is a consequence of the constraints of register because it is the register in which people operate that often determines the level of formality which is appropriate.  It is, however, not always the case that informal style cannot be deployed in professional registers or that formal style is not sometimes used between friends and relations with whom one normally communicates quite informally.

The most useful categorisations of style from a language teacher's point of view are arguably those suggested by Joos (1961):

Frozen style The wording remains unchanged in this style so it includes things like quotations from Shakespeare, some written signs such as The management accepts no liability for ...  etc.  Often this style is written but it does occur in spoken language less commonly.
Formal style This is most familiar in the form of lectures and monologues where interruption is not allowed and technical, precise language is at a premium.
Consultative style This is the sort of thing that occurs between, e.g., doctors and patients, teachers and students, counsellors and clients, service providers and customers etc.  It allows for two-way communication but shared knowledge is not essential.
Casual style This is such as happens in communications between friends.  It is characterised by lots of slang and some in-group language, plenty of interruption and a good deal of assumed knowledge so a lot can be left out or left unsaid.
Intimate style This occurs between family members and very close friends and is characterised by a good deal of non-verbal communication and some 'private' vocabulary.  It is not commonly adopted in the public domain.

Of course, this is not a neatly defined set of styles and it's easy to see that each merges seamlessly into the adjacent styles.  In fact, it's possible to invent new categories of ever-increasing precision, such as semi-formal, but it isn't helpful for our purposes to do so.
The key issue here is that style is dependent on appropriate language use in a social setting.  It differs from register in that the latter is concerned with the sorts of language used by certain people in certain topic areas and settings.  In other words, register is defined by the language user but style is defined by the language use.

style plus

Style and Register

If we accept a more modern definition of register which avoids the confusion with style, we can easily see that certain registers may exhibit a range of styles.  Here's an example or twelve:

  Legal register Medical register English Language Teaching register
Frozen style Queen's Bench Division Entrance A & E Parking Only FCE Materials File
Formal style I put it to you ... Scalpel! Listen and let me explain to you all
Consultative style Do you have a reasonable alibi? How long have you had this? You need to think about the tense form, Helmut
Casual style His brief's a basket case The radiographer's off his head Upper int.?  Fat chance


Code switching

Native or very expert speakers are at home in a variety styles and registers.  In other words, native speakers are multicodal in the sense that they can switch codes depending on the setting they find themselves in and the domain (or field of discourse) in which they are operating.
Doctors, lawyers and English language teachers, for example, will be equally at ease using both register-specific language and situation-specific formality.
Dialect and accent, too, are issues and their use may be appropriate in certain styles (usually less formal) and in certain social settings (registers).  Using a regional accent or dialect terms at other times is something many will consciously avoid.

Learners of English, on the other hand, will not have these skills to draw on and may be very limited, therefore, in the amount of appropriacy they can bring to their language production.
Register-appropriate language is the meat and drink of teachers of language for special purposes (business, academic English, engineering, air-traffic control etc.) but considerations of style affect all teachers (or should).


Six types of register

Up to now, we have only been considering one form of register, namely, that determined by the topic or, in Halliday's term, the field of discourse in which the choice, particularly of topic-specific or technical lexis is determined.  There are, following Chui, 1972, five other determinates of language use which can be ascribed to register in the widest sense of the term.

  1. Temporal variation
    Language choices vary over time as a glance at a newspaper written 20 years ago and one in current circulation will confirm.  This is a natural and well-documented phenomenon in all languages although English, in its role as the dominant language in science and technology as well as the social sciences, is more prone to change than many other languages.
    Terms such as the verb to text or those used to describe internet-related phenomena are obvious examples of words which are marked as having up-to-date relevance whereas other terms, such as wireless or horseless carriage, once also cutting-edge technologies, are falling out of fashion and are marked for obsolescence rather than current use.
  2. Geographical variation
    English is spoken very widely in the world and a range of identifiable varieties has developed all of which will have peculiarities of lexis, pronunciation and grammar associated with them.  Within a single nation, too, there are wide dialectical variations with grammatical, phonological and lexical differences.  For example, in the north of Britain, the use of a negative expression such as:
        They'll not be coming
    is more prevalent, whereas in the south, the preferred form is more likely to be:
        They won't be coming
    There are, too, as most people can attest, variations in words for common objects both within national dialects and between national varieties such as the use in AmE of elevator where BrE prefers lift.
    For more, see the guide to language variety linked in the list of related guides at the end.
  3. Social variation
    Within all languages there are attested differences in language use depending on social class and position.  In some languages, these are very marked indeed and are the product of centuries of class division and caste systems only now beginning to be broken down.  In English, some evidence exists of distinctions between what are termed U (upper class) and non-U (lower class) uses of certain words such as coat (U) vs. jacket (non-U), serviette (non-U) vs. napkin (U) and so on.
  4. Social role variation
    This is the nearest register gets to being better described as style because role relationships, especially power relationships, directly affect the types of language speakers and writers will deploy.  Deferential language is more likely to be used by those with lower power in a given setting and imperatives and demands are more likely to be deployed by those who have greater power in any setting.  The fact that power relationships are very variable and often setting specific means that speakers consciously and unconsciously use different language forms in different social settings.
  5. Mode variation
    Mode is another Hallidayean term and refers to the channel of communication.  Written vs. spoken vs. texted vs. Twitter and other social media channels will all have an effect, sometimes a very distinctive one, on the choice of vocabulary, grammar and precision that language users make.  For example, the use of abbreviations such as LOL (laughed out loud or lots of love) will not occur in spoken forms of language and nor will they appear in formal written communication.  Grammatical complexity varies, too, from mode to mode so an academic text will display markedly more sophistication than a Twitter message.


So, what do style and register affect?

Social role register (style) affects:

Register affects:


Teaching implications

Click for a short test on this area.

Related guides
spoken discourse for considerations of how this is structured
language variety for some considerations of geographical and social registers
sociolinguistics for a guide setting out the main concerns of the study of the connections between language and society
EAP index a section of this site is dedicated to English for Academic Purposes and most of the guides in that area consider style and register in one way or another
English for Business a section of this site is dedicated to English for Business and most of the guides in that area consider style and register in one way or another
context for a general consideration of the importance of context for language presentation and practice
turn-taking a guide to how this is accomplished in English with due regard to style and setting

Chui, RK, 1972, Measuring register characteristics: A prerequisite for preparing advanced level TESOL programmes, TESOL Quarterly 6(2), 129-141
Joos, M, 1961, The Five Clocks: a linguistic excursion into the five styles of English usage, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World
Stern, HH, 1983, Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Trudgill, P, 1992, Introducing Language and Society, London: Penguin