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In this lesson, you will learn about register, the level of formality in language as determined by context. There are two types of register in literature, formal and informal.

Either or both may be used to great effect in literature. Let’s also take a look at some examples of register.

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Register in Language

Imagine that you’re going to be introduced to a very important person who you have never met. Maybe it is the Queen of England. When you meet her, would you say: ‘Hey, dude! What’s up?’ Probably not. You would say something more formal such as ‘It is an honor to meet you, Your Highness.’ On the other hand, you wouldn’t call your best friend ‘His Royal Highness.

‘ Instead you would be fine using the informal address, ‘dude.’In every situation you encounter, you use speech appropriate to the person to whom you are speaking and his or her context. The language you use when talking to your friends is not the same language you would use when meeting someone as important as the Queen. This difference in language formality is called register.

Categories of Registers

There are formal and informal registers in spoken and written language. Formal registers can include everything from an academic essay to wedding vows.

The academic essay is formal because it includes polished speech, complex sentences, and precise vocabulary. The wedding vows are an example of extremely formal language that must be said the same way each time as part of a ritual.There are also varieties of informal registers.

Informal language occurs between people who know each other well and who speak without trying to be ‘proper’. Sometimes this includes speaking in slang and other times it’s simply a more casual delivery. For example, you might say, ‘Could you bring us more coffee, please?’ to a waiter at a fancy restaurant, but at your favorite hangout you might say, ‘Can I get a little more coffee here?’ when you’ve reached the bottom of your cup.

Register & Literature

Register is often used to create a unique tone or style in a literary work. Literary language does not have to be formal. In fact, it can use formal and informal registers at any time. Sometimes, it uses both.

Register & Fiction

In the case of fiction, register informs the style of narration.

It is also important in dialogue between characters. A narrator can take a distanced stance and sound very formal and objective. However, when a character speaks, his or her register can depend on what defines him or her, such as gender, social class, or cultural background.

Let’s look at an example from the second chapter of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:The Dover mail was in its usual genial position that the guard suspected the passengers, the passengers suspected one another and the guard, they all suspected everybody else, and the coachman was sure of nothing but the horses; as to which cattle he could with a clear conscience have taken his oath on the two Testaments that they were not fit for the journey.‘Wo-ho!’ said the coachman. ‘So, then! One more pull and you’re at the top and be damned to you, for I have had trouble enough to get you to it!–Joe!‘Halloa!’ the guard replied.In this passage, the first paragraph objectively sets the scene for the dialogue between the coachman and the guard and uses a formal literary tone. When the coachman speaks to the guard, though, he uses a casual form of speech, including mild swearing. The coachman’s informal register and use of vulgar language implies that he does not have a high position in society.

Poetry & Register

Poetry is an unusual case because poetic language has special characteristics that make it unlike most spoken language. Since poetry is mainly a written genre, frequently the rules it obeys are much more complex than the way we typically speak. For example, much poetry has a very strict relationship between its formal aspects (rhyme and meter) and its content.

For this reason, poetry forms its own category within the definition of formal register. Let’s look at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ (written in 1820), to see how inflexible the form of poetry can be.HAIL to thee, blithe spirit!Bird thou never wert–That from heaven or near itPourest thy full heartIn profuse strains of unpremeditated art.This poem obeys a very strict scheme of rhyme and meter, which, as you can see, makes it very different from everyday language.

Register & Drama

Much like narrative, dramatic works use register to give its characters distinct speech patterns that reflect who they are and, frequently, their position in society. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we see that King Claudius has an elevated style of speech.

This makes sense because he is king, and it’s logical that he would use lofty language. The example given below demonstrates this:Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s deathThe memory be green, and that it us befittedTo bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdomTo be contracted in one brow of woe;Contrast this with the language of the clown in Act V, who sings the following:In youth, when I did love, did love,Methought it was very sweet,To contract, O, the time, for, ah, my behove,O, methought, there was nothing meet.This is more informal language that anyone would speak, or in this case, sing. Language register is used here to highlight the differences in speech between royalty and the common people.

Lesson Summary

Register is defined as the level of formality in language that’s determined by the context in which it is spoken or written.

It can be formal or informal. Formal speech is proper, while informal speech is conversational or casual. Fiction, poetry, and drama all employ different registers, sometimes within the same work.


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