in language usage
with implications for teaching.
Closer Connections Conference
October 1 and 2, 2009
Missy Slaathaug
We tell our thoughts, like
our children, to put on
their hats and coats
before they go out.
H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Register defined
Sociolinguistics =
the intersection of language and society
How does language reflect society?
How does language shape society?
of language are basically questions of
Noam Chomsky, quoted by S. Romaine
A simple observation:
In different situations,
people use different forms
of language.
Depending on the situation,
we use
different words and phrases
For example, to refer to death:
died, passed away, passed, passed on, moved on,
expired, croaked, bought the farm, passed from
life temporal to life spiritual, went to meet her
Maker, be taken, meet one’s end, perish
different grammatical patterns
Gimme a dime.
Could I trouble you for the time?
Do call me.
How do we start to analyze
Depending on the situation –
So - look first at the components of the situation.
What is actually taking place? Where?
Who is taking part? What is their relationship?
What part is language playing?
who, what, when, where
A fancy academic definition
The concept of register is typically
concerned with variations in language
conditioned by uses rather than users and
involves consideration of the situation or
context of use, the purpose, subjectmatter and content of the message, and
the relationship between the participants.
Suzanne Romaine, 1994
Register refers to:
the variations in language which reflect
the particular situation
the goals of the communication
the relationship between the speakers
Joos’ Five Clocks
The concept of register has been around a long
 introduced in the 50’s.
 Martin Joos’ outlined it clearly in his 1961
book The Five Clocks.
 quoted, referred to, kicked around by many
others: Cheryl Carter, Suzanne Romaine, and
also Ruby Payne in her book A Framework for
Understanding Poverty.
printed, unchanging language, formal, almost
scripted phrases that do not vary
 Examples:
 The
 The Lord’s Prayer
 The Pledge of Allegiance
 Laws
 Preamble to the US Constitution
One way communication, no interruptions
Used in impersonal, formal settings
Follows a commonly accepted format - complete
sentences, more complex syntax and specific word
Often used to show respect
Introductions between strangers
Rhetorical statements and questions
Speeches, pronouncements made by judges,
standard for work, school, public offices and business settings
Two way participation, professional setting
 Background information is provided (prior
knowledge is not assumed).
 Interruptions and feedback fillers allowed
(“uh-huh”, “I see”).
 More complex syntax, longer phrases
Doctor:patient, lawyer:client, lawyer:judge,
Colleagues, peers
Very informal language, ellipsis and slang are common
No background information provided
“group” language – must be a member to use
Interruptions common
Context and non-verbal communication important
friends and acquaintances
chats and blogs
 Intonation as important as wording and
 Often a private vocabulary
husband, wife
twins (siblings)
pets, I would also add
Interesting to note here, this is the
language of sexual harassment as well.
Some rules of register use:
Moving from one register to another
is OK – as long as you only go to the
adjacent level.
More than that and you are in trouble
– your language use is seen as
inappropriate or even offensive.
Greetings in different registers
Frozen: I want to welcome you to the Closer
Connections Conference, sponsored in part by
Dakota TESL and SDALL.
 Formal: Good morning. I’ll let Dr. Jones know
you are here.
 Consultative: Hello Mr. Smith. How are you
doing this morning?
 Casual: Hey, Jack. What’s up?
 Intimate: How’s my little puppy today?
Requests in different registers
Frozen: Please submit the information at
your earliest convenience.
 Formal: Could you possibly type this up for
me by tomorrow?
 Consultative: Can you finish this after lunch?
 Casual: Watch the door for me, OK?
 Intimate: Hey, darlin’, pour me a cuppa joe.
Encouragement in different
Frozen: As you commence this endeavor, I
offer you all my prayers and support.
 Formal: Thank you for applying for this
position. We will let you know in a week if you
have been chosen for an interview.
 Consultative: Thanks for following up on the
Jones account. Great job!
 Casual: Whoa, way to go! Nice catch!
 Intimate: You are so sweet. I’m crazy about
you, honey!
Partings in different registers
 Frozen:
Farewell, and godspeed.
 Formal:
Goodbye. We look forward to seeing you
 Consultative:
Goodbye. Have a good weekend.
 Casual:
Bye now – take care.
 Intimate:
later, darlin’.
How do we know what register to
How does this work?
Language is behavior
Part of our cultural code, unwritten rules
Taught explicitly to children (and teens!)
Absorbed as we mature
Labored over consciously as we get older
in academic settings, or writing speeches
Mostly – we both learn registers and slip between
them without conscious thought. It is part of
being fluent in a language.
Vertical and Horizontal
This 5 part scale is usually visualized
vertically – from most informal to most
 I would argue that is it rather more like a
pyramid, and that the less formal categories
have many sub-categories, according to
criteria like
ethnic/racial group
socio-economic class
region, etc.
So the Casual Register for a group of white
suburban teenagers is quite different from
the casual register of a group of African
Americans, or a group of Native Americans.
These would be differences in vocabulary
(slang), grammar, intonation and usage and the
differences might be quite fluid, changing
There is little room for variation at the
top of the pyramid.
The Frozen Register is just that – frozen. No creative
melting or thawing allowed.
The Formal Register is close to that, and, I would
argue, is based on white middle class formal English –
again, the class in power.
Language is all about power, remember?
Language is all about power
To re-visit this idea –
We mark and judge people immediately upon
speaking with them. We make judgements about
their education
their background
their income
their intelligence
We adjust ourselves in our relationship to them,
according to each piece of linguistic information we
keeping in mind language = power
We expect people in authority to speak a
certain way, using the formal register.
Supervisors, administrators
Professors, teachers
Professionals (doctors, lawyers)
TV Newscasters
We would be disappointed and disconcerted and
distrustful if they did not.
A simple truth
You must master the upper registers if you
want to get to certain upper positions in US
(barring rap stars, athletes and some other
groups. They seem to have a ticket to ignore
language register requirements.)
What does this mean for
First some background.
Every language has different registers. Many
mark them more overtly than English does.
Romance languages – tu/vous in French,
tu/usted in Spanish, tu/lei in Italian
Germanic languages – du/Sie in German,
du/ni in Swedish
Register in Japanese:
a very complex system of honorifics
expressed by prefixes, suffixes, verb forms,
vocabulary choices, etc.
 organized into three main categories:
respectful language
humble language
polite language
The first two are referent honorifics, used for someone
being talked about, and the third is an addressee
honorific, used for someone being talked to.
In addition, the Japanese system factors in:
Gender differences
Age of each person communicating
Business dynamics between superiors/subordinates
and between businessman/customer
And we thought we had it hard!
If ESL learners do have such overt
register markings in their native
tongues, sometimes they feel that
English is completely free-wheeling with
its lack of markers.
No suffix to show respect – no need to
worry about it at all then!
Implications for teaching
We know this is not the case –
so how do we address it with
our learners?
Teach it.
Teach it.
 Why?
We just explored some of the
socio-economic reasons why.
(language is power)
 Why
not? The more information you
can give learners about how this all
works, the more power they have.
Teach it, continued.
 Beginners?
Yes. In simple ways.
 Advanced learners? Yes, of
course. The more fluent a person
is, the higher the expectations of
his/her cultural knowledge –
he/she are expected to know
what to do and when to do it.
(Language is behavior.)
Teach it explicitly
Look for texts that present the idea of
register in some fashion.
Look for texts that present different
linguistic forms for learners to choose from
and some sort of criteria for choosing
It may be watered down – formal/informal
distinction. This is better than nothing!
Practice it.
Include it in active practice
Set up role play situations.
Ask learners to monitor their degree of formality.
Ask audience to judge degree of formality.
Ask learners to flip it – from formal to informal.
Exaggerate! How would you say this to the
President? To your neighbor and friend? To your
principal? To your mother? To the Chairperson of
your department?
Talk about it
 Point
out examples in the language
around us.
 Ask
learners to listen for polite phrases
or informal phrases in a listening
exercise or when you have a guest
speaker or a school assembly. – Kenneth Beare
A clear discussion of register
A WONDERFUL list of example phrases, many
of which I borrowed earlier
A GREAT list of business phrases for running
a meeting – a formal situation that calls for
specific language if ever there was one.
Beare, business register
Welcoming and introducing
Good morning, everyone.
If we are all here, let’s get started.
We’re pleased to welcome. . .
Please join me in welcoming. . .
Stating the principal objectives
We’re here today to. . .
I’ve called this meeting in order to. . .
Beare, continued
Intoducing the qgenda
Have you all received a copy of the agenda?
Shall we take the points in this order?
If you don’t mind, I’d like to go in order today.
Moving forward
Shall we get down to business?
Is there any other business?
Let’s move on to today’s agenda.
K. Beare
He covers all the speech acts you need to run
a meeting, for example:
Introducing the first item on the agenda
Closing an item
Giving control to another participant
Finishing up
Setting the next meeting
Thanking participants for attending
Closing the meeting
Only non-native speakers?
Absolutely not.
This affects many of our learners.
Native Americans identified as ELL’s
Adult education learners who may have little
experience with the more formal registers of
This leads to thoughts of academic language
versus playground language, or BICS and
CALP, to use a few nice acronyms . . .
Cheryl Carter,
Vernon Family Learning Center, Texas
ABE lesson online:
Understanding language registers as a means
to more effective communication
Learning Objective:
Learners will have a clear understanding of
registers of language, will be able to
distinguish between different registers, and
will be able to utilize these registers for
more efffective communication.
Carter’s ABE lesson
Introduction to Language Registers
Recognizing Language Registers
Discussion, eliciting examples
with Little Red Riding Hood story in formal and
casual register.
Using Language Registers
Asks learners to construct their own
or internet search: Charyl Carter language register
The End.
Hope you found this interesting.
Contact me for resources, or just to talk.
Missy Slaathaug
[email protected]

REGISTER in language usage with thoughts on …