What is Language Register in Writing?

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Copywriting Marketing

I walk you through the five-point formality scale of written language register.

​Unless you’re a professional writer/editor, you probably read the title of this article and started envisaging a cash till.

Surprise, surprise – that’s not what we’re going to talk about.  ‘Register’ also refers to the level of formality that language fragments have.  In plain English, language register classifies whether a sentence is used in formal or informal settings.

Think about language register like the clothes you wear.

When you go over to a friend’s house, a singlet, boardshorts and thongs are fine.  If you’re browsing in a high-end mall, a polo shirt and nice shorts might be better.  When you go out to dinner with your partner at a nice restaurant, long pants and a nice shirt are normal.  In the office, you might be expected to wear trousers, a business shirt and a tie.  In extremely formal settings like a funeral or court, you’d probably wear a suit.

In the same way, you use different language in different settings.

Have you ever read a social media post or a piece of copy and thought, “That’s way too formal”, or “It’s too casual”?

That’s a case of the writer failing to identify and use the correct register.  You might not always be able to put your finger on exactly what’s wrong with the writing, but most people can recognise when the incorrect register is used.

Understanding register is essential for marketers, especially as more and more of the buying process moves online (goodbye, robotic sales scripts).  It’s a component of brand voice, and, without fully comprehending what register is, you’ll never be able to reach target audiences effectively.

What are the 5 registers of language?

There are different ways of classifying register, but the five-point formality scale is the most popular.  It generally looks something like this:

  • ​Ceremonial register
  • Formal register
  • Neutral register
  • Informal register
  • Casual register

I’ll go into more detail about each of these in a minute.

Register relies on context

A common way of showing the differences between register formality levels is to use a table like this:

Ceremonial Formal Neutral Informal Casual
Greetings Hello Hello Hi Hey

While this particular example is fairly accurate, it’s important to remember that, as a generalisation, English words don’t inherently have a specific formality.  Register relies on context, both at a sentence and a socio-cultural level.

As an example, I’ve received emails (in fluent English) from Indian marketers which begin with “Hello Mr. Duncan”.  There’s clearly a registral clash there, because while ‘hello’ on its own might be acceptable as a formal greeting, within the context of a written address, it seems too casual – “Dear Mr. Croker” would the accepted Australian way to begin a formal letter.  In India, however, “Hello Mr. Duncan” might be the proper formal greeting.

You can only analyse a sentence or a paragraph’s register, not a word’s, so be careful not to ‘rule out’ certain words from use, especially if you have an in-house style guide.

Ceremonial register is exactly how it sounds.  This is the kind of language you’ll see in older texts, like Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Tennyson’s poetry, and so on.  It uses a lot of archaic language, and often has unnecessary amounts of adjectives, with unusual or outdated sentence structures.  Unless you’re writing to mimic an older style, chances are you’ll won’t use this register.

Traits

  • Archaic word choice
  • Outdated or complex sentence structures
  • ‘Purple prose’ (overly descriptive sentences)

Example

The King James Bible, Mark 1:3:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Formal Register: Business Shirt and Trousers

Formal register is more common than ceremonial register.  You’ll probably see it in business reports, research essays, high-level communications, and formal speeches.  It’s characterised by its use of complex syntax, lack of contractions, colloquialisms or idioms, more extensive (and possibly subject-specific) vocabulary, and is often written from an objective, third-person perspective.  Often, using a formal register means that text is slightly less accessible to a general audience.

Traits

  • Complex sentence structures
  • Technical jargon
  • Passive voice
  • Uncommon word choice
  • No slang or contractions

Where to Use

  • Academic essays
  • Business reports
  • Business presentations

Example

Kim & Kim, ‘The Influence of Authenticity of Online Reviews on Trust Formation among Travelers’:

“Based on the aforementioned notion, the following research model (see Figure 1) was formulated to (1) investigate the influences of perceived authenticity of online reviews about destinations on two aspects of travelers’ trust toward mega review sites (i.e., cognitive and affective); (2) examine the impacts of the trust toward the websites on travelers’ trust and behavioral intention toward destinations the website recommended; and (3) test the influence of destination trust on behavioral intention.”

Neutral Register: Chinos and Long-Sleeved Shirt

A neutral register is similar to a formal register – the main difference is the higher level of accessibility.  Your syntax should be less complex (which often means shorter sentences).

You should use words that will effectively and clearly convey your message.  For example, the sentence you just read is written in a neutral register.  Written in a formal register, it might read like, “Ideally, vocabulary should be utilised that effectively and cogently conveys the intended message.”  See the difference?

A neutral register is best suited for when you’re still trying to sound professional, but you want a broader audience to understand what you’re saying.  You’ll often see this in textbooks, speeches, news reporting, essays, reports and many other types of academic or business writing.

Traits

  • Common word choice
  • No jargon and slang
  • Relatively simple sentence structures

Where to Use

  • Emails
  • Website copy
  • Advertising
  • Reports
  • Presentations
  • Social media
  • Blogs

Example

The New York Times, ‘1.5 Million Antibody Tests Show What Parts of N.Y.C. Were Hit Hardest’:

“The data from the city is on a far larger scale than previously released information, and includes all antibody test results reported to the city’s Department of Health.”

Informal Register: Shorts and Polo Shirt

This is what you’ll often see in blog posts, informal speeches, magazine articles, travel writing, advertising, and so on.  Case in point: this entire post is written in a more-or-less informal register.  Use of colloquialisms, idioms, references to cultural knowledge, shorter, snappier sentences and highly-engaging text are all marks of an informal register.  You’re using an informal register to capture the audience’s attention and engage with them in an exciting manner.

Traits

  • Colloquialisms
  • Contractions
  • Simple sentence structures
  • High-context references
  • Active voice
  • Idioms

Where to Use

  • Blogs
  • Ads
  • Social media
  • In-house emails
  • Presentations

Example

The New York Times, ‘A Rhode Islander Reconciles Herself to Calamari’:

“‘My new home state of Rhode Island is trending over calamari and I have never been more hungry and confused at the same time,’ tweeted one Rhode Islander. ‘It should be the clam cake comeback state,’ I told my friend. Never heard of clam cakes? That’s because our savory fritters dotted with our iconic chopped quahogs are utterly unique to the Ocean State.”

Casual Register: Singlet, Boardies and Thongs

Casual register is typically used while texting or writing to someone you know well.  It will probably feature lots of slang, abbreviations, colloquialisms and sentence fragments.  In my experience, casual writing often correlates very closely with how someone speaks.  It’s very rare you’ll use a casual register in a professional context, unless you’re writing social media captions that use a deliberately relaxed brand voice.

Traits

  • Slang
  • Abbreviations
  • Colloquialisms
  • Sentence fragments
  • Technically incorrect syntax
  • Emojis

Where to Use

  • Social media

Example

Hungry Facebook user:

“Why is the food truck with the awesome Dagwood dogs not at the showgrounds? Was craving one this arvo and very sad to see the space empty ? Hope they come back.”

Summary

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, marketers need to understand what language registers are because choosing the correct register is necessary for effective communication.

Most marketers either use neutral or informal registers; if you write annual reports, memorandums, prospecti or other business documents, you’ll probably also write in a formal register.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re running Google Ads, scheduling social media posts or populating websites with content – writing in the wrong register is the easiest way to lose the attention of your audience.

Got a question about written language registers?  Drop a comment or email me at service@chevronediting.com.au.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

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