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Introduction to Vertical Register Usage


Two colleagues discussing work from a tablet
Carlina Teteris/ Moment/ Getty Images

Register use is one of the most important aspects of correct English usage for advanced users of the language. In other languages (French, German, Italian, etc.) formality can be signalled through the formal / informal "you" (du - Sie, tu - Vous, tu - Lei, etc.). In English, register is a key element in expressing degrees of formality.

Here is an overview of registers with specific examples for specific occasions.

REGISTER - Definition: Type of language used when speaking to others

VERTICAL REGISTER - Definition: Language used varying in degrees of formality

HORIZONTAL REGISTER - Definition: Jargon, slang, etc. used in communicating with your friends, colleagues, etc.

One of the more interesting parts of the discussion centered around this hierarchy of "vertical" registers proposed by Cheryl Carter.

LANGUAGE REGISTERS (adapted version)

  1. Frozen - Language that does not change - Prayers and pledges, "set" speech which is often scripted
  2. Formal - Complete sentences and specific word usage. - Formal English often used to show respect used in places such as work, school and public offices
  3. Consultative - Formal register used in conversation - colleagues, peers, etc
  4. Casual - Language used in conversation with friends. - idiomatic and often full of slang, used to signal belonging to a given group
  5. Intimate - Language between lovers (and twins). - "private" language full of codewords only known to the two

Here are four examples of different situations using different types of language to express similar sentiments:

Example: Greetings

  1. Frozen - Welcome to the Hugh Brothers Industrial Center. Where tomorrow's world meets today's. Please remember that no flash photography is allowed during this tour...
  2. Formal - Good morning. May I speak to the director, please?
  3. Consultative - Hello, Mr Smith. How are you this morning?
  4. Casual - Hey, Jack. What's up?
  5. Intimate - How's my little snuggy wuggy?

Example: Complaints

  1. Frozen - This is a complaint for damages and injunctive relief arising out of manipulative activities in the gold market from 1994 to the present time ...
  2. Formal - I hope you don't mind my stating that the service is unsatisfactory. I would like a refund.
  3. Consultative - Excuse me Ms Anderson. As I understand the task, we need to focus on improving our delivery times rather than blaming our suppliers.
  4. Casual - Oh, Bob. Just a moment! Listen, you know... well... what was with that off-key comment last night?
  5. Intimate - I'm sick and tired of your crap!

Example: Encouragement

  1. Frozen - I offer You all my prayers, works, joys and suffering of this day ...
  2. Formal - Thank you for applying for this position. We'll let you know within a week if you have been chosen for an interview.
  3. Consultative - Thanks for following-up on the Jones account. Great job!
  4. Casual - Whoa, way to go! Nice catch!
  5. Intimate - You're so good. I'm crazy about you, Honey.
Practice Register Use:

Identify the correct register
Choose best statement for the situation

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