Register (discourse)

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In sociolinguistics, the term register refers to specific lexical and grammatical choices as made by speakers depending on the situational context, the participants of a conversation and the function of the language in the discourse (cf. Halliday 1989, 44). According to M.A.K. Halliday, there are two main types of variation in language, social and functional. Dialects arr characterized by social or regional variation, whereas register concerns functional variation. However, these two notions are not entirely independent of each other. Hudson (1993, 51) states that “one man’s dialect is another man’s register.”, i.e. linguistic features which are part of one speaker’s dialect might belong to a specific register for another speaker. Nevertheless, many linguists hold the view that speakers often only control one or two social varieties of language (standard and dialect), while they use a “wide range of registers” (Barnickel 1982, 13; Biber 2000, 135; Halliday 1990, 43; Trudgill 1983).

In contrast to dialect, which Halliday (1990, 41) defines as a “variety of language according to the user”, register focuses on the “variety according to use.” Thus, register is characterized by “differences in the type of language selected as appropriate to different types of situation” (Halliday et. al. 1964, 87), which means that there is a close relationship between language and context of situation. Most linguists agree with this definition. However, two perspectives of register classification can be distinguished. The first approach, as proposed by Halliday (1989, 44) and Hymes (1979, 244), is context-based. The second perspective differentiates registers on the basis of text collections (Biber 1994, 20).

Context-based register categorization

M.A.K. Halliday, who was one of the first linguists to pay special attention to the concept of 'register' in the 1960s and 1970s, interprets this notion as “a semantic concept” which “can be defined as a configuration of meanings that are typically associated with a particular situational configuration of field, mode, and tenor.” (Halliday 1990, 38f.) The linguistic features (specific expressions, lexico-grammatical and phonological features) and the particular values of the three dimensions of field, mode and tenor determine the functional variety of a language (cf. Halliday 1994, 22). These three parameters can be used to specify the context of situation in which language is used.

Field of discourse is defined as “the total event, in which the text is functioning, together with the purposive activity of the speaker or writer; it thus includes the subject-matter as one element in it” (Halliday 1994, 22). The field describes activities and processes that are happening at the time of speech. The analysis of this parameter focuses on the entire situation, e.g. when a mother talks to her child.

The mode of discourse refers to “the function of the text in the event, including therefore both the channel taken by the language – spoken or written, extempore or prepared – and its [genre], or rhetorical mode, as narrative, didactic, persuasive, ‘phatic communion’ and so on” (Halliday 1994, 22). This variable determines the role and function of language in a particular situation. When analyzing the mode of a text, the main question is ‘What is achieved by the use of language in this context?’ For example, a fairy tale (in written form) may have a narrative or entertaining function. A spoken conversation can be argumentative (in a discussion) or phatic (e.g. to contact someone or to keep in touch with someone).

Tenor of discourse (sometimes also referred to as style; cf. Esser 2009, 78) describes the people that take part in an event as well as their relationships and statuses. “The tenor refers to the type of role interaction, the set of relevant social relations, permanent and temporary, among the participants involved” (Halliday 1994, 22.). There might be a specific hierarchy between the interlocutors, e.g. when the head of a business talks to an employee, or they may have only a temporary relationship, e.g. when a person asks an unknown pedestrian for the time.

All three variables (field, mode, tenor) taken together enable people to characterize the situational context specifically, and, thus, to recreate part of the language that is being used (cf. Halliday 1994, 22f.). Halliday provides the following example to explain the significance of collective information about the three parameters:

“For instance, if we specify a field such as ‘personal interaction, at the end of the day, with the aim of inducing contentment through recounting of familiar events’, with mode ‘spoken monologue, imaginative narrative, extempore’ and tenor ‘intimate, mother and three-year-old child’, we can reconstruct a great deal of this kind of bedtime story […].” (Halliday 1994, 22f.)

Halliday looks at register from the “system end" (Teich 2003, 27). This means that he infers from the context of situation which linguistic structure and patterns are likely or unlikely to be used in a text. Field, mode and tenor of discourse describe the context of a situation in which language is used. Register, however, is defined as a functional variety of language according to the use in particular settings. Hence, Halliday connected three distinct functions of language with the three dimensions of a situation mentioned above.

“The functional components of the semantic system of a language [are] (a) ideational, subdivided into logical and experiential; (b) interpersonal; and (c) textual. [...] the field is reflected in the experiential meanings of the text, the tenor in the interpersonal, and the mode in the textual meanings.” (Halliday 1990, 29)

Halliday’s concept of register is rather broad and does not provide a set of clear-cut registers. According to his definition and approach, many different kinds of register exist in language. He only distinguishes closed and open registers from each other. Closed (or restricted) registers have a number of possible meanings that are “fixed and finite and may be quite small” (Halliday 1990, 39). Examples for closed registers include the 'language of the air' or 'the languages of games' (Halliday 1990, 39). Sometimes these registers have a special language of their own. In open registers, “the range of the discourse is much less constrained” (Halliday 1990, 39), e.g. in letters and instructions. Nevertheless, Halliday points out that there are no registers that are entirely open. “The most open-ended kinds of register [are] the registers of informal narrative and spontaneous conversation” (Halliday 1990, 40). It does not become entirely clear in Halliday’s approach how many registers exist and how they can be separated from another.

Similar to Halliday’s concept of register, Dell Hymes developed the ‘Model of interaction of language and social setting’ (the so-called S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G model) to categorize speech situations. With the help of eight components, speakers may characterize the context of an interaction, and, thus, make correct use of language. Hymes’ variables of discourse are: (i) setting, (ii) participants, (iii) ends, (iv) form and content of text, (v) key, (vi) interactional norms, (vii) medium and (viii) genre (cf. Halliday 1994, 22). This approach, too, suggests that there are countless different language situations and, therefore, registers. Hymes also indicates that there are still many variables and patterns that have to be discovered and classified (Hymes 1979, 244).

Quirk et. al. (1989, 25) do not define register explicitly, but they describe varieties according to field of discourse, medium and attitude. In fact, this conforms to Halliday’s concept of register, although they never make use of this term. Yet, Quirk et. al. (1989, 25) present a “five-term distinction” to categorize linguistic varieties, and, thus, they narrow down the range of registers:

very formal – FORMAL – neutral – INFORMAL – very informal

The very formal variety of language (“extremely distant, rigid or frozen”; Quirk et. al. 1989, 27) is often found in written instructions. Very informal language, which is also called 'intimate, casual, slangy, or hearty' (ibid.) is used between family members or close friends. However, Quirk et. al. point out that the inner three-way distinction of formal – neutral – informal is chiefly used to designate language.

Halliday, Hymes and Quirk et. al. have similar notions of register. They focus on the context of a language situation and they identify registers on the basis of this knowledge.

Text-based register categorization

Libe Halliday (1990, 1994), Douglas Biber defines the term register as “situationally defined varieties” (Biber 1995, 1). He also agrees with Halliday in that “important components of the situational context include the purpose of communication, the physical mode (spoken or written), the production circumstances, and various demographic characteristics of the speaker/writer” must be taken into consideration (Biber 1999, 5). However, Biber chiefly focuses on the grammatical characteristics of different text types(cf. Biber 1999, 8). He does not infer from the context which linguistic features will probably occur in a text. Rather, “he looks at register only from the text end as a set of texts that exhibit relatively high/low frequencies of occurrence of particular grammatical features” (Teich 2003, 27). Biber distributes registers to different kinds of texts, and afterwards he investigates linguistic differences or similarities. “Registers share many linguistic features – such as nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. – and they are distinguished by the relative use of these features” (Biber 2000, 136). According to Biber, several linguistically and situationally similar kinds of texts constitute a register.

In his corpus-based approach to English grammar, Biber (1999) considers four major registers: conversation, fiction, newspaper language, and academic prose (cf. Biber 1999, 8). However, he also points out that registers can be defined “at almost any level of generality” (Biber 1999, 15). The four registers of his approach can be further subdivided, e.g. newspaper writing includes news reportage and editorials as well as reviews (cf. Biber 1999, 17). This means that there is, like in Halliday’s approach, a considerable amount of possible registers. In his analysis, Biber examines lexico-grammatical structures of text samples from each register and concentrates on the actual use of these features in different varieties of English (Biber 1999, 4). In this way, he can describe a specific register according to its linguistic features, and it is possible to distinguish the major registers from each other, with more or less clear-cut boundaries.

Register Classification in the Oxford English Dictionary

In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the entries are classified according to the use of an expression in different language situations. Generally, all entries are classified as 'standard'. Additionally, some expressions are categorized differently according to the particular contexts in which they are appropriately used. The main register labels in the Oxford Thesaurus of English (2006) are the following:

  • Informal: normally used only in contexts such as conversations or letters between friends
  • Vulgar slang: informal language that may cause offence […]
  • Formal: normally used only in writing such as official documents
  • Technical: normally used in technical and specialist language, though not necessarily restricted to any specific field
  • Literary: found only or mainly in literature written in an ‘elevated’ style
  • Dated: no longer used by the majority of English speakers […]
  • Historical: still used today, but only to refer to some practice or article that is no longer part of the modern world
  • Humorous: used with the intention of sounding funny or playful
  • Archaic: very old-fashioned language, not in ordinary use at all today […]
  • Rare: not in common use”

(Oxford Thesaurus of English 2006, Introduction ix)

This register classification is probably most common in English today. However, many other types of register are used in different dictionaries.


The use of the term register was criticized in the 1970s by David Crystal, who viewed the term as being indiscriminately applied to every possible variety of language. Since there is no restriction on the range of application for the term 'register', an infinite number of registers can be identified:

“This term has been applied to varieties of language in an almost indiscriminate manner, as if it could be usefully applied to situationally distinctive pieces of language of any kind. […] It is inconsistent, unrealistic, and confusing to obscure these differences by grouping everything under the same heading […].” (Crystal 1976, 61)

Moreover, Crystal criticized that different situational contexts have not been sufficiently studied to establish a finite set of register labels (cf. Crystal 1976, 61). Still, the term register is widely used today and provides a useful parameter of linguistic analysis.

References and recommended reading

  • Barnickel, Klaus-Dieter (1982). Sprachliche Varianten des Englischen: Register und Stile. München: Hueber.
  • Biber, Douglas and Edward Finegan (1994). Sociolinguistic perspectives on register. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Biber, Douglas (1995). Dimensions of register variation: a cross-linguistic comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Biber, Douglas (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow: Longman.
  • Biber, Douglas; Conrad, Susan and Randi Reppen (2000). Corpus linguistics: investigating language structure and use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Crystal, David (1976). Investigating English Style. London: Longman.
  • Esser, Jürgen (2009). Introduction to English text-linguistics. Frankfurt am Main: Lang.
  • Halliday, Michael A.K. (1964). The linguistic sciences and language teaching. London: Longman.
  • Halliday, Michael A.K. (1989). Spoken and written language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Halliday, Michael A.K. and Ruqaiya Hasan (1990). Language, context, and text: aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Halliday, Michael A.K. and Ruqaiya Hasan (1994). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
  • Hudson, Richard A. (1993). Sociolinguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hymes, Dell (1979). Soziolinguistik: zur Ethnographie der Kommunikation. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • Oxford thesaurus of English (2006). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney and Geoffrey Leech (1989). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. London: Longman.
  • Teich, Elke (2003). Cross-Linguistic Variation in System and Text. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Text available at: [1]
  • Trudgill, Peter (1983). Sociolinguistics: an introduction to language and society. London: Penguin Books.