When we stumbled upon Grammargeddon.com we had to check it out. There we discovered two passionate (and opinionated) editors, Karen Conlin and Ray Vallese, who are devoting their lives to making the world a better place for indie authors. We found Karen's frank and candid style refreshing and she clearly knows her grammar. So we asked her to explain the concept of "register" to help clarify this often misunderstood, yet fundamental aspect of good writing. Now here's Karen...
Check out that register. Is it casual? Consultative? Formal? Frozen, maybe?
What am I talking about, anyway? Register?
Linguists use the term to talk about the diction, usage, and syntax people speak with, dependent on the setting. If we’re in church, or in court, the register tends to be what’s called “frozen”: the wording is always the same, always this way, never that way, and often also quite lofty in diction. Think “Comes now [plaintiff/defendant] acting on [his/her] own behalf” and “Comes now [plaintiff/defendant] and moves this Honorable Court to Hold Defendant…” in legal motions. Note this is the language used in the court filings, not necessarily in other legal materials (like textbooks or records of judicial proceedings).
Formal register is what we hear in academic or scientific or legal or medical circles—but that’s beginning to change in some areas, with a push for plain language. Sometimes there’s a predilection toward the passive voice: “These experiments were performed during the spring of 2015 by a group of researchers under the aegis of the Monsanto Company.”
If we’re at the doctor’s office or a parent/teacher meeting, the register tends toward what’s called “consultative.” It’s not formal, but it’s not front-porch chit-chat, either. There’s usually a sense of respect (one hopes it’s mutual) between the participants, and slang or casual wording is rare. There could well be the use of contractions, but they won’t be slangy. “Josh hasn’t been paying attention” (as opposed to “Josh has not been paying attention”).
And then there’s casual register, which is what we use with friends and colleagues. Inside jokes are part of casual register. Lots of contractions show up in this register, and sometimes they’re slangy. “Y’all need to back off.” “I’m not sayin’ this again.” “Attitude Adjustment Hour is at 5 this afternoon at the usual place.”
Intimate register goes a step further; it’s used between lovers, as the name suggests, or between family members. Pet names and coined words that no one outside the family uses are part of this register.
So what’s this got to do with writing?
Who Is Your Reader?
Register in writing is for the audience. What are you trying to tell them? Who are they? What’s your subject matter? All those things help you determine what register you should use. It’s akin to voice, except where voice is for the writer (whether it’s narrative voice or dialogue/character voice), this is for the reader. Think of it like you do your wardrobe. Where are you going? How will you be expected to dress? Will you bother to meet those expectations, or are you a renegade? Should you wear a suit, or will a polo and casual pants be all right?
Still having trouble understanding it? Think about two style manuals most editors know: The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. Their register is what I’d call consultative; they’re authorities, explaining guidelines to professionals. There’s a sense of mutual respect assumed by the writers and editors of those books when it comes to the intended audience. And yet …
The voices of those books, the way the writers compose their thoughts, are different. That’s because voice and register are not the same thing, although they work in concert. For my money, the AP writers’ voice is simpler, more straightforward; that’s logical, right? They’re writing for journalists, mostly. Get to the point, and get there fast. The CMoS voice is a little more literary (again, this is my opinion: YMMV, your mileage may vary, as they say); the audience there is editors/authors of books, not news pieces. The subject matter is similar, but not identical; the audiences, different in scope.
And yet, the register is consultative in each text.
And within the myriad combinations lies the magic.
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