Understanding and using register

Understanding and using register

December 18, 2017 By Karen S. Conlin Resources

Independent fiction editor Karen Conlin, in addition to writing this article, has hosted an #ACESChat about understanding register.

In August, I led a Twitter #ACESChat about register in writing and editing. Interestingly, at least to me, many of those attending realized they knew what register was, but not what it was called. 

Linguists use register to describe the level of formality we use when speaking to others. Here is a post I wrote for, explaining how register works in writing. It’s similar to voice, but it’s not the same. Register and voice work together to create each author’s style, and it’s our job as editors to understand that synthesis and work within it for each client.

There’s a difference, too, between register and code switching. I was only beginning to learn about this at the time of the #ACESChat. Since then, I’ve gotten some great input and clarification from linguists about it, in particular from Alexandra D’Arcy (@LangMaverick). 

Register variation occurs within a language. Code switching goes between languages. Think of an African American Vernacular English (AAVE) speaker who uses that with family and friends, and switches to standard English if they’re meeting with, let’s say, a doctor or a banker. 

Very briefly, here are the five registers:

Frozen is the kind of language we hear at church (think of the group recitations, often from memory) or in court (especially when the bailiff speaks the call to order).
Formal is the language we encounter in academic and medical journals (and probably others, but I have experience with those myself).
Consultative is what we hear and use when we meet with professionals, like bankers, teachers or lawyers; there’s a certain level of respect on both sides (at least one hopes there is!).
Casual register is what we use with our peers.
Intimate goes a step further by incorporating pet names, in-jokes and perhaps even code words no one outside the relationship will understand.

Why not try this quiz to see how well you grasp the idea of register as it relates to writing and editing? For each question, jot down which register you think is being used. Answers are at the end of the quiz. 

  1. From the night of my birth, I had been haunted by apparitions and troubled by phenomena unseen by anyone other than myself.  
  2. “Hey, meet in the parking lot in fifteen for lunch. You in?” 
  3. And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed … And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) … 
  4. After we finished dinner, we piled into the Buick and headed for the mall. 
  5. No more than an hour before bed, mix the entire contents of the green packet with 8 ounces of water and drink it within ten minutes. 
  6. “What you mean, we don’t got any more bread? I tol’ you to buy some last night!” Mom stomped around the kitchen, banging saucepan lids and stainless steel ladles like a wacked-out percussionist. 
  7. “Bunnykins, do you still want to bob for videos?”
  8. During the spring of 2016, a group of researchers ventured into the outback to undertake a month-long study of the effects of exposure on petrochemical-based packaging. 


  1. Formal: Word choice and structure are sophisticated. I would dare say a good portion of what we consider “classic literature” falls into this category, simply because people wrote and spoke differently then.
  2. Casual: The speaker is clearly addressing a co-worker, a peer (someone assumed to be of the same social level).
  3. Formal, for sure, and perhaps one could also say frozen, taken as it is from the King James Version (KJV) of the New Testament; Biblical language tends toward frozen in practice.
  4. Casual, no doubt about it.
  5. Consultative: It’s plain language, like one might find in an instruction packet from one’s medical lab.
  6. The dialogue: Casual, with its nonstandard grammar. The narrative: I’ll say it’s also casual, with word choices like “stomped” and “wacked-out.” There can be quite a bit of variation within a given register.
  7. Intimate, no question. The pet name and the unusual phrase “bob for videos” are giveaways.
  8. Formal, as are most research-oriented texts. I’m sure it could be said in plainer language.

Header photo: Vintage image created by Jcomp -

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