Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

August 20, 2009

Register – choosing appropriate language for the context

Not only do we have to learn the grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation etc.. we also need to make sure that we use it  appropriately and in the right context.

No peace for the wicked – goes the saying, a constant vigilance in language learning is also required to make sure that we become expert and versatile English users. Selecting the right language for the right situation is important to demonstrate our expertise and to keep us out of hot water!

Consider the following sentences:

  • Would you like a cup of coffee?
  • Joe – coffee?
  • Can I get you a coffee?

Formal, informal and neutral. I’m sure that you can imagine the people to whom each of these should be addressed (boss, friend and someone you don’t know very well).

How about the following scenario?

Your brother has a brand new sports car and you’d like to borrow it. Which would you use.

  • Lend me your car will you?
  • I was wondering if I might use your car.
  • Could I borrow your car?

The first (informal) will probably get the answer ‘no’ (or worse) – remember the car is new and special. The last (neutral) sentence might be more appropriate in this situation. If your brother is unlikely to want to lend then you may need to try the second which is the most formal.

The things to consider are:

  • the relationship
  • the nature of the request, offer etc..
  • how difficult it would be for the person to agree, offer, perform etc..

Here the relationship is very close but the nature of the request is difficult and the person may be reluctant – the car is both new and prized.

When using more formal register there are certain aspects of language that should be avoided. Phrasal verbs are generally too informal, as are idioms. We also usually avoid contractions (can’t, isn’t) particularly in writing.  Incomplete sentences are more appropriate in informal settings.

Aspects that do feature in formal language are modal verbs (check out which of these are formal, neutral and informal), passives and latinate words (activate instead of  turn on, arrive for turn up etc..).

Don’t confuse register and formal/informal language they are not synonymous. Register denotes the choice of language, whether that be formal or informal, you make to match a given situation.

Have a look at the following sentences and see if you can see where they might have problems:

  • Dr Phillips I’d like to introduce you to Professor Smithy. He’s the chap who gave the Key Note Speech at last year’s conference.
  • We shall be delighted to accept your invitation and can’t wait to see you on the day.
  • Let’s go to the 8 p.m. showing I’ll accompany you at 7.30.
  • Sue, don’t forget to extinguish the light when you go to bed!
  • Sirs, it is with regret that I write this letter. Last week while shopping in your store, I was dissed by one of your assistants………..
  • Go away! I don’t want to converse with you any more!
  • Delivery time is usually 2 days but we do endeavour to deliver as soon as the goods arrive in the warehouse.

Did you find the anomalies?

  • Dr Phillips I’d like to introduce you to Professor Smithy. He’s the chap who gave the Key Note Speech at last year’s conference.
    • chap is too informal in this context – repeat Professor Smithy gave …
  • We shall be delighted to accept your invitation and can’t wait to see you on the day.
    • can’t wait is too informal – use looking forward to
  • Let’s go to the 8 p.m. showing I’ll accompany you at 7.30.
    • pick you up/collect would be more appropriate than accompany (which sounds very stiff) in this very informal context
  • Sue, don’t forget to extinguish the light when you go to bed!
    • extinguish isn’t really necessary here – turn off would be more natural
  • Sirs, it is with regret that I write this letter. Last week while shopping in your store, I was dissed by one of your assistants………..
    • Dissed is very informal, spoken to rudely or in a rude manner would be better
  • Go away! I don’t want to converse with you any more!
    • converse isn’t a natural choice here – speak to
  • Delivery time is usually 2 days but we do endeavour to deliver as soon as the goods arrive in the warehouse
    • this is a neutral sentence and doesn’t need endeavour, try would be satisfactory

    For more practice try this exercise on formal social phrases

    Of course once you have mastered the concept of register you can turn it on its head and mix registers for special effects and impacts but that’s for another post!

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    11 Comments »

    1. […] out my post on Register for more on […]

      Pingback by Using Modal Verbs – part 3 « Rliberni’s Blog — January 12, 2010 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

    2. […] Register – choosing the appropriate language for the context […]

      Pingback by Pronunciation – Some practical tips. « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — February 18, 2010 @ 6:05 pm | Reply

    3. The phrase you use when speaking must always come down to the situation you are in, so if it informal then you should choose the appropriate such as ‘coffee please’. However, if you was in a formal situation, then you would choose a phrase such as ‘I would like a coffee please’ and so on.

      Comment by Joanne — May 9, 2011 @ 8:41 pm | Reply

    4. […] Register – choosing appropriate language for the context […]

      Pingback by English language learning tips – my Top 10 posts « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — May 20, 2011 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

    5. […] phrasal verbs – these are not appropriate for formal pieces of  writing – make a list of alternatives. (see my post on Register) […]

      Pingback by 7 deadly sins to avoid in your writing « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — July 20, 2011 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

    6. I would like to acknowledge you for the effective clue towards my expectations , I’m very grateful and wish you a brilliant way forward.
      Yours commissioner,
      Mutsindikwa.

      Comment by Dzikamai Mutsindikwa — March 13, 2012 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

      • Thank you for your comment Dzikamai. I do hope that this helps you with your English progress. If you need English for your work then it is very important that you choose your language appropriately in order, not only to communicate well, but also to give a good impression of yourself as a professional and of the organisation that you represent.

        Comment by rliberni — March 14, 2012 @ 12:40 am | Reply

    7. […] Source: https://rliberni.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/register-choosing-appropriate-language-for-the-context/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged English Assignment. […]

      Pingback by Register – choosing appropriate language for the context « A little bit of school work. — September 12, 2012 @ 2:05 pm | Reply

    8. Very good rating to the site

      Comment by Solomon Akinlotan — September 24, 2012 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

    9. I like this website

      Comment by ted taurai nyakuseka — January 11, 2013 @ 3:54 am | Reply

      • Thank you. I hope you find the tips and ideas useful in your practice.

        Comment by rliberni — January 21, 2013 @ 5:42 pm | Reply


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