Linguistic Register and Code Switching

By Mark Nichol

“Linguistic register” refers to the concept of adapting one’s use of language to conform to standards or traditions in a given professional or social situation, and writers and editors will benefit from recognizing the distinction between registers. The five general categories follow:

  • Intimate register is the highly informal language used among family members and close friends, and may include private vocabulary known only to two people or a small group, as well as nonverbal cues exclusive to the pair or group.
  • Casual register is the informal language of a broader but still well-defined social group, and includes slang, elliptical and elided sentences, and frequent interruption.
  • Consultative register is moderately formal language that marks a mentor-protege or expert-novice relationship, such as that between a doctor and a patient or a teacher and a student.
  • Formal register is language spoken between strangers or in a technical context.
  • Frozen register is ritualistic or traditional, as in religious ceremonies or legal proceedings.

Various registers, therefore, are distinguished by not only by sophistication of vocabulary but also by complexity and regularity of grammar and syntax. It is vital to note, however, that register is associated not with the speaker or writer but with the professional or social environment; a person can conceivably, within a given day, communicate in each of the five linguistic registers in assorted interpersonal interactions.

A related term is diatype, which means “language distinguished by the professional or social purpose,” and is often distinct from dialect, which means “language spoken by an individual or a group,” though a particular form of language may qualify for both definitions.

The three factors in diatype are field, or subject matter; mode, or the form of communication (written, spoken, and so on); and tenor, or the participants and their professional or social relationships. Mode is further defined by the degree of preparation — whether the communication is improvised or prepared, or somewhere in between — and by the rhetorical purpose, including expository, narrative, or persuasive.

Another term relevant to linguistic register is code-switching, which varies in meaning but for our purposes refers to flexibility in adhering to a register within or between communications. One of the most noticeable examples of code-switching in U.S. urban areas is the divergent use by black people of standard American English and Black English (appropriately, known in a more formal register as African American Vernacular English). The difference between speech among adolescents and their conversations with parents and other authority figures is also code-switching.

Writers and editors must be at least subconsciously aware of linguistic register. In fiction, a given character may necessarily shift among several, if not all, degrees in a given story, and the character’s fidelity to the appropriate register in each situation will in part determine the writer’s success.

Nonfiction also relies on attention to linguistic register, in that a topic for one article or essay may require consultative register, while another may call for casual or formal register — and the writer must sometimes consider whether code-switching within one piece is an appropriate strategy. (You get my drift?)

This discussion does not suggest that writers and editors must dispassionately analyze writing for technical adherence to linguistic register in order to succeed. But wordsmiths who recognize the distinctions will be more successful in facilitating communication in both informational and creative prose.

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5 Responses to “Linguistic Register and Code Switching”

  • Megan

    I think this is much less relevant than it used to be. Most readers will now be able to switch their mindset very quickly often without even noticing they are doing so.

    In my opinion it is very easy and actually natural to switch between these “codes” as i write. it all depends on so many factors that keeping it within one register doesn’t actually occur to me. this is regardless of whether i am writing creatively or it is an article.

    I bear in mind the reader, of course. I like my writing to be comprehensible, but I feel that is about as far as I need to concern myself.

  • Judi Hopper

    This article exemplifies the two things I most love about Daily Writing Tips: it presents to me new facets of language and communication and it features interesting, authoritative writers.

  • Roberta B.

    Megan, you just proved his point!…….without even noticing.

  • Allena

    The ability to code switch tends to make for more interesting, beautiful writing.

  • Cygnifier

    What a great reminder of something that is a vital part of negotiating life. Martin Joos’ model of the 5 registers, which you give here, is a useful tool for the classroom and for speakers and writers. The ability to think and communicate beyond limited registers, diatypes, and dialects is often fundamental to success and social mobility. While Megan suggests that this is less relevant than it used to be, I would disagree. Sociolinguistic research shows that regional variation in the States is actually on the increase. And our choice of vocabulary/register reveals much about socio-economic status, education, and cultural context (much of which is used, fairly or not, to make judgments about competence, intelligence, character, etc.). I have taught university-level communication courses (public speaking, composition, interpersonal communication, etc.) for many years and find that those who think learning how to communicate in different modes and styles is not relevant do so at their peril. Currently I teach in a (mostly) military environment where the registers called for often depend on whether one is talking up/down/across the ranks — and even something as seemingly simple as figuring out when “the F bomb” is or is not appropriate is a part of learning register, context, and purpose. Learning what counts as appropriate (including respectful and civil) across different situations includes “getting” the register that is expected and developing competence in managing the registers within the flow of everyday communication. Good article, Mark.

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