I'd be interested in asking people about their understanding of the term register and what this signifies for them. This would be a discussion about a specialised term and I'm sure there are multiple interpretations out there, depending on your education.

I think that there are multiple definitions of register. Simplified definitions focus on "informal" and "formal" registers, however, these fail to formally identify what linguistic features realise the register variables. As an ESL teacher, I find many textbooks over-simplify this issue, resulting in students learning lists of "informal" and "formal" words e.g. get = receive, buy = purchase, and = furthermore etc. Although there may be some contexts where this is possible, this is simply not the case. Because of this, I'm trying to work out a better way to explain this and engage with people through shared understanding.

As a student of Halliday's systemic functional linguistics, the term "register" is further technicalised to include notions of what's going on (the field of discourse), who's involved (the tenor) and how these are textually linked together (the mode). However, even within SFL, there is still much discussion about what this actually means and there are different camps with different definitions. One camp believes there are registers for domains of use e.g instructional, regulatory, representational, etc. Another camp believes that register relates to the context of situation e.g. medical, legal, educational etc. The reason I bring this is up is that just last night I was discussing differences between Halliday and Martin's understanding of register (see http://functionallinguistics.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/2196-419X-1-3)

Halliday sees register as a stage on the cline of instantiation, i.e. between the potential system and a given instance of text or language, similar to Saussure's notions of langue and parole. This means that the entire of the potential grammatical choices in a system will not occur in any particular instances of language in a given context. As such, the potential meaning (semantics) in any text will be mediated through register.

I have been schooled in Martin's view of register and understand it to be a complex interplay between the field, tenor and mode, each of which can be related to semantic systems, which in turn can be related to lexico-grammatical systems. E.g. Field can be related to whether the meanings are more common or specialised/technicalised (e.g. dog - canine), tenor can be related to whether the relationship between interactants is more close or distant (e.g friends and strangers) and whether the power relations are more equal or unequal (e.g. student - teacher), and mode can be related to whether the message is more spoken or written (remembering that written language can be spoken!). From this I understand "formal" to be a combination of more specialised/technical vocabulary (field), greater distance and power differential between interactants (tenor), and tends to be more written language (mode). "Informal" can be seen as a combination of more common/everyday vocabulary, closer distance and more equal power relations, and tends be more spoken. As such, jargon may be classified as a form of specialised language, which may in turn suggest a particular register, but the relations between the language and the context must be made explicit.

I understand this is a lot of linguistic theory but strongly believe this is relevant to the discussions about meaning and language that take place here.

I welcome any discussion

  • I, too, find formal and informal be a gross simplification of the interplay between Germanic (common), latinate (professional), and specifically French (legal, governmental, and sometimes cultivated) word choices. "Buy" is fine for milk and bread but falls short when discussing the legal complexities of contracted "purchases", such as the extension of credit or non-cash terms of payment (as in purchase orders).
    – Egox
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 9:59
  • I find that ESL students do readily appreciate a distinction drawn between monosyllabic vocabulary choices and their more elaborate "synonyms", as well as the comparison of latinate constructions (e.g., the Fourth of July) to more Germanic ones (e.g., July Fourth).
    – Egox
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 10:00
  • 2
    This belongs at Linguistics
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 4:53
  • 1
    If a question is on topic both here and at Linguistics, it is still welcome here.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 20:29
  • 1
    @curiousdannii ok - thanks for the tip. I'm new here and trying to work out the 'rules of the game' takes a little time. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 6:54

1 Answer 1


A register is the same as a style or (more specifically) a lect. This term "lect" had some currency for a time, and refers to a variety of speech with internal coherence, but which is ordinarily only one of many styles of speech controlled by a language speaker. The idea is that a dialect is a collection of lects, a "dialect continuum", or "creole continuum".

The model stems from the work of Stan Tsuzaki at the University of Hawaii, who studied the local English of Hawaii, which he thought comprised a variety of styles, from those closer to the creole that developed from Hawaiian Plantation Pidgin and those closer to the standard English of the mainland US.

The theory was taken up and developed by Derek Bickerton, William Labov, and my advisee Richard Day, among a number of others.


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