Linguistic Register and Code Switching
“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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