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Cristina Pennarola » 2.Focus on register

Focus on register

Lesson plan

  • Writing as a communicative act
  • Stylistic choices
  • What is register?
  • Formal or informal register?
  • Round-up

Writing as a communicative act

The language we use in writing is affected by various factors related to the communicative context (a university room or a bar) and to the writer’s intention.

In particular, when we write we have to consider:

  • The recipient: who is going to read the message
  • The context: when and where the message is produced and when and where the message will be activated
  • The function or aim: are we writing in order to persuade, inform, apologize, etc?

Our stylistic choices obviously depend on all these variables.

ACTIVITY: Let us compare these two sample texts:

Sample text 1
Be back soon.

Sample text 2
Lessons will resume on April 13th.

What are the main differences?

Stylistic choices

Key to the activity
Sample text 1:
The absence of the subject and punctuation as well as the brevity of the message are typical of Post-it notes, informal messages which we’re all used to leaving with our friends and colleagues for personal information.

Sample text 2:
The abstract noun in the plural (lessons) and the rather formal verb resume are typical of notices, official informative messages used in institutional contexts (schools, police stations, public buildings, etc.).

ACTIVITY: Let us now compare two other sample texts:

Sample text 3
I shall return soon.

Sample text 4
Back to school next week.

Stylistic choices

Sample text 3 and sample text 4 correspond to sample text 1 and 2 respectively, but only at surface level. In fact they convey the same information with different emotional undertones: friendly in sample texts 1 and 4, and distant in sample texts 2 and 3.

In our own native language we are well aware of the extra connotative meanings associated with the words we use – whether for example it’s more appropriate to use un sacco di (loads of) or una grande quantità (a large number), sballo (have a ball) or divertimento (fun).

To improve our knowledge of a foreign language, we have to develop this linguistic awareness, the “feel” of a language.

What is register?

Register is
“A particular style of language which is appropriate in certain circumstances. Murmuring to your lover, chatting with friends, writing an essay, being introduced to the Queen – all these require different registers of English.” (R. L. Trask, 1997, A Student’s Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London: Arnold, p. 185).

The register depends on:

  • The field: the socio-temporal context (a formal meeting or a date) and the topic (law, politics, sport etc.)
  • The tenor: the relationship between the participants (whether it is a close friendship, or a simple acquaintance)
  • The mode: the channel of your communicative act (whether spoken or written)

For example, we distinguish a legal/medical/technical etc. register depending on the field of the communicative exchange; and a formal/informal or neutral register depending on the tenor and mode.
When we speak to our friends, we are usually very relaxed and use informal language; when we write, we tend to use more formal language.

Formal or informal register?

The sentences below use a formal or informal register. Rewrite them to make them sound more formal or informal.
Terrific! (informal) It was very good! (neutral) It was outstanding! (formal)

  1. Fancy a quick drink?
  2. Can you lend me ten quid?
  3. What’s up?
  4. Kindly refrain from smoking.
  5. If you require further assistance contact Mr John.
  6. There was loads of booze at the party.
  7. Only food purchased here may be eaten on the premises.
  8. It is highly recommended that you book a long time in advance.
  9. We regret to inform you that we are unable to comply with your request.

Formal or informal register?

Key to the activity

  1. Fancy a quick drink? (informal) Would you like something to drink? (neutral) It is a pleasure to offer you something to drink (formal)
  2. Can you lend me ten quid? (informal) Can you lend me ten pounds? (neutral) I was wondering whether it would be possible for you to lend me ten pounds. (formal)
  3. What’s up? (informal) What’s happening? (neutral)
  4. Kindly refrain from smoking in the lecture hall (formal). Please don’t smoke in the lecture hall (informal)
  5. If you require further assistance contact Mr Johnson (formal). Call Peter for help (informal)
  6. There was loads of booze at the party (informal). There were a great many alcoholic drinks at the party (neutral)
  7. Only food purchased here may be eaten on the premises (formal). You can eat only food you’ve bought here (informal)
  8. It is highly recommended that you book a long time in advance (formal). You ought to book early (informal)
  9. We regret to inform you that we are unable to comply with your request (formal). Sorry, we can’t do what you’re asking (informal)

Round-up of register

If we take a close look at the examples in the previous slide, and at the changes which occur in the shift from formal to informal register and viceversa, we notice that:

A formal register is characterized by:

  • Formal words (for example, refrain, premises)
  • Impersonal forms (it is highly recommended)
  • Passive voice (food may be eaten)

An informal register is characterized by:

  • Informal words (for example, fancy, quid)
  • Direct address (call for help)
  • Inaccuracies (there was loads of booze)

I materiali di supporto della lezione

R. Carter, S. Cornbleet, 2001, The Language of Speech and Writing, London, Routledge.

R. L. Trask, 1997, A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London, Arnold.

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Progetto "Campus Virtuale" dell'Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, realizzato con il cofinanziamento dell'Unione europea. Asse V - Società dell'informazione - Obiettivo Operativo 5.1 e-Government ed e-Inclusion

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