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Formal Register

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Formal Register

As a student, you'll be familiar with the formal register. Your lessons, presentations, and lectures are most likely delivered by your teacher in the formal register (at least for the most part), as it is often associated with written language, and academic and professional settings.

Formal Register, two receptionists at a desk, StudySmarter

People in customer service roles also often use the formal register when talking to clients - Pixabay

The formal register is just one of the registers we use daily. So, what are the other kinds of registers?

There are six main types of language register:

  • Casual register
  • Intimate register
  • Frozen register
  • Consultative register
  • Neutral register
  • Formal register

To begin, let's look at the meaning of 'formal register'.

Formal Register Definition

As the 'Do-Re-Mi' song from The Sound of Music1 states, 'the beginning is a very good place to start', so let's start with a definition!

First of all, what exactly is a register?

Register, in linguistics, refers to a variety or type of language used for a particular purpose in a particular type of communicative interaction.

What, then, is the formal register?

Formal is an adjective that refers to anything that is important or official, or carried out in a manner that follows convention.

This means that the formal register refers to the variety of language used in important, official, or ceremonial situations where proceedings are dictated by particular etiquette or rules.

Formal Register in Communication

Now that we have the definition of 'formal register' under our belts, let's take a closer look at the characteristics of the formal register that we can identify in communication.

Formal register characteristics

  • generally somewhat impersonal and unemotional

  • uses complete sentences, complex or longer sentence structures, and standard grammar

  • most commonly uses Standard English (e.g., standard British English or standard varieties of other languages, depending on the country, e.g. Standard French)

  • makes use of extended or complex vocabulary

  • limited use of personal pronouns

  • avoids using pet names and terms of endearment

  • avoids contractions and abbreviations

  • avoids idioms and metaphorical language

  • generally avoids imperative sentences

  • avoids colloquialisms, slang words, swearing, and vulgarities

  • used in formal, official, or ceremonial situations, or situations that follow conventions of some kind

Colloquialisms - informal and non-standard parts of speech usually used in spoken, not written, language.

How do you know when to use the formal register?

Audience

If you're struggling to know when to use the formal register, your audience is one of your most helpful hints! For example, if you're having a chat, or even a more serious discussion, with a friend or close family member, it is unlikely that you'll need to use the formal register.

When we talk to people we know well, are close to, and feel comfortable around, we seldom need to use the formal register. Even when having important discussions or debates, it's more likely that we will use some informal language and language features rather than carefully constructing complex sentences and making sure our language is impersonal and standard.

On the other hand, when we speak to authority figures, employers, teachers, and other professionals, the formal register might feel more natural than more casual speech. Using the formal register in conversation with authority figures and professionals shows respect and will likely match the manner in which they are speaking to you.

Place

Oftentimes, the place in which a situation occurs will have a significant impact on the situation itself. There are some places where the formal register is not only appropriate, but expected. For example, in court, both lawyers and witnesses are expected to use formal and factual language. It is not appropriate for people to swear or use unnecessary colloquialisms.

There are many places and situations where the formal register is used as standard. Some other examples could include:

  • offices and corporate spaces

  • business meetings and presentations

  • academic lectures and presentations

  • hospitals

Purpose

The reason behind the communicative interaction is a very important factor in determining what register to use.

If the purpose of the conversation or communication is simply to share information or catch up with a loved one or friend, then the formal register is not needed. Asking small favours of people, whether you know them well or not, does not generally require the formal register. For example, when asking a stranger on a train if they have the time, it is not necessary for you to use complicated sentences or even standard English; you could quite easily do this in the casual register.

If the purpose of the communication is to discuss a serious or official matter, ask for guidance or clarification on something, or to complain about something formally. In that case, the formal register might be more appropriate. Business-related communications, legal and accounting procedures, and academic situations also commonly call for the formal register.

Formal Register, people having a business meeting, StudySmarter

Business meetings and other professional situations usually call for some degree of formality - Nappy

Formal Register Use

Now that we've covered the main features of the formal register, and the factors that determine when it should be used, let's look at some examples of these situations:

  • When teachers, lecturers, and other kinds of academic speakers deliver lessons and educational material, it's likely they will use the formal register (at least to a degree). This is because the formal register is clear and complete, using full sentences and grammar, as well as extended vocabulary. These characteristics make the formal register a good medium for teaching.
  • Additionally, when speaking to a teacher, lecturer, or academic professional, the student might also use the formal register. Because these academic professionals are authority figures in their particular fields, using the formal register to communicate with them shows respect.
  • In most kinds of job, the formal register is appropriate when an employee addresses their boss. If you had an issue you wanted to discuss, or required clarification on a work-related matter, you might send an email to your employer (or manager/supervisor etc) and it would make sense to use the formal register.
  • When politicians and other authority figures in society make public addresses or speeches, they will most likely use the formal register. They will use full sentences, avoid slang and colloquialisms, and often follow certain conventions depending on the type of ceremony, speech, or broadcast.

The Queen's annual Christmas Address is an example of a public figure/ authority figure using the formal register to communicate to an audience. Here is an excerpt from her 2021 Christmas Speech:2

And February, just six weeks from now, will see the start of my Platinum Jubilee year, which, I hope, will be an opportunity for people everywhere to enjoy a sense of togetherness; a chance to give thanks for the enormous changes of the last seventy years – social, scientific and cultural – and also to look ahead with confidence.

Queen Elizabeth, 2021

In this passage, we see complex and full sentence structures, and the sentences are carefully constructed. There are no contractions, colloquialisms, or vulgarities, and although the content of the speech is festive and inspiring, the language used is not overly emotional. These are all characteristics of the formal register.

Some other examples of when the formal register might be used include:

  • when writing letters of complaint

  • when writing letters of recommendation/ references

  • when sending emails or memos in a corporate or professional environment

  • during court proceedings and other legal procedures

  • during wedding ceremonies and vow renewal ceremonies

Can you think of any situations where you might have used the formal register? See how many examples you can think of. If you can't personally think of any examples, try thinking up some other potential scenarios where the formal register might be necessary or appropriate.

Formal Register Conversation Example

No matter what the English Language topic, examples can help to consolidate our understanding. On that note, here are some examples of the formal register in verbal communication:

Officiant: 'Welcome everyone. We are gathered here today to witness the joining of John Smith and Sally Jones in holy matrimony. If anyone knows any reason why these two people should not be legally wed, please speak now.'

...

Officiant: 'Very well. We will now continue with the vows. John, repeat after me "I, John Smith, take you, Sally Jones, to be my wife."

John Smith: 'I, John Smith, take you, Sally Jones, to be my wife.'

(and so it goes on!)

Wedding ceremonies are a prime example of the formal register being used in verbal communication for several reasons. Firstly, the language used by both the officiant and the couple getting married is generally formal in nature, avoiding colloquialisms, contractions, and abbreviations. Secondly, wedding ceremonies are exactly that: ceremonies. They therefore follow specific conventions, which is another common characteristic of the formal register. Standard English (or a standard version of another language) and complete sentences are also used, rather than more casual language varieties and short sentences.

Another example:

Customer: 'Good afternoon, would it be possible to speak to the hotel manager, please?'

Receptionist: 'Good afternoon, Sir. Of course. I am going to put you on hold for just one moment, is that alright with you?'

Customer: 'Yes, that's fine.'

Receptionist: 'Ok great. The next voice you hear will be the manager. Thank you for your patience, and have a good day.'

In this example, the formal register is shown in how both participants use formal greetings such as 'Good afternoon', and 'have a good day', as well as the receptionist using the formal title 'Sir' to refer to the customer. Both participants are polite without being overly personal, and standard grammar and language choices are used throughout the exchange. Neither participant uses slang, colloquialisms, idioms, or contractions during the conversation either.

Formal Register in Writing

Now let's look at some examples of the formal register in writing:

Emails to one's boss or teacher are often written in the formal register:

'Dear Mr. James,

I have attached a draft of the contract for the Burley Manor account for your consideration. I have yet to send a copy to the client, pending your final approval. If all appears to be in order, please send me a confirmation email and I will forward the document to the client for review.

I would also like to arrange a time to meet with you in person to discuss another account. If you could let me know your availability at your earliest convenience, that would be greatly appreciated.

Kind Regards,

Susan Hart

Legal Department

In this email example, we see that Susan has used the formal greetings of 'Dear Mr. James' and 'Kind Regards', and has kept the tone of the email professional and direct throughout. There is no overly descriptive language, no metaphorical references, and no slang. The sentences have been carefully constructed, and she has used Standard English and grammar too. There is no mention of personal matters, and Susan does not use any language that suggests she has a familiar or casual relationship with Mr. James. Business-related correspondence is often carried out using the formal register.

Academic essays are also typically written using the formal register:

Formal Register, a hand writing in a book, StudySmarterMany different written documents use the formal register, including academic essays and contracts - Pixabay

Mental Illness in Modern Literature, and the Limitations of Medical Discourse

Mental health is an issue that is widely addressed in literature, and particularly in modern literature. Writers have handled mental health in a variety of forms including the short story (The Yellow Wallpaper), the novel (The Bell Jar), poetry (The Wasteland), plays (Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett), and auto/biography (Prozac Nation). This essay will explore these forms, the methods that writers use to portray mental illness effectively, and the ways in which medical discourse often fails to account for 'the self' when making diagnoses.

...

In this opening paragraph to an academic essay, we see that informal language is avoided, as are idiomatic language, contractions, and abbreviations. The sentences use standard grammar and have a range of lengths and compositions, showing that they have been purposefully constructed. The writing style is impersonal, and the vocabulary choices stick closely to the topic being discussed. Casual language, non-standard grammar, and overly descriptive passages would not be appropriate in most forms of academic essays.

Formal Register - Key Takeaways

  • The formal register is one of six types of language register: formal, casual, frozen, intimate, consultative, and neutral.
  • The formal register is used in formal, professional, or ceremonial situations and can be used in written and verbal communication.
  • The formal register is often associated with business, academic, and professional communications.
  • Things that should be avoided when using the formal register include colloquialisms, slang, swearing, idioms, contractions, and personal pronouns.
  • The formal register often includes full and complex sentences, Standard English, and standard grammar.

References

  1. R. Wise, The Sound of Music (film), 1965
  2. Queen Elizabeth, Royal Christmas Broadcast, 2021

Frequently Asked Questions about Formal Register

An example of the formal register in writing could be something like:


  • an academic essay or presentation
  • wedding vows
  • contracts and other official documents

Some examples of the formal register in verbal communication could be:


  • The Queen's Christmas Address
  • the language used in business meetings
  • the language used in court proceedings
  • the language used in interviews

The formal register is one of the six language registers that are used to determine how language should be used in particular situations. The formal register is used in professional, official, or important situations, or situations with ceremonial or etiquette-based conventions. 

These are some language features you should avoid when using the formal register:


  • slang and colloquialisms
  • pet names and terms of endearment
  • swearing and vulgarities
  • contractions and abbreviations
  • idioms and metaphorical language
  • imperative sentences

The formal register in communication is a variety of language used in formal, official, or academic/professional settings. One would not use the formal register when chatting to friends or family.

Final Formal Register Quiz

Question

What does 'formal' mean?

Show answer

Answer

'Formal' refers to anything that is important or official, or carried out in a manner that follows convention. 

Show question

Question

What is a register in linguistics?

Show answer

Answer

A variety or type of language used for a particular purpose in a particular type of communicative interaction. 

Show question

Question

True or false, the formal register can be used in both written and verbal communication.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

List three characteristics of the formal register.

Show answer

Answer

Any from this list:


  • generally fairly impersonal and unemotional

  • uses full sentences, complex or longer sentence structures, and standard grammar

  • most commonly uses Standard English 

  • makes use of extended or complex vocabulary

  • limited use of personal pronouns

  • avoids using pet names and terms of endearment

  • avoids contractions and abbreviations

  • avoids idioms and metaphorical language

  • generally avoids imperative sentences

  • avoids colloquialisms, slang words, swearing, and vulgarities

  • used in formal, official, or ceremonial situations


Show question

Question

Is the formal register generally personal or impersonal in tone?

Show answer

Answer

Impersonal

Show question

Question

What are the three factors you can look at to determine whether the formal register is appropriate or not?

Show answer

Answer

Audience, place, and purpose

Show question

Question

List three places where the formal register is most commonly appropriate.

Show answer

Answer

Hospitals

Schools/ universities

Business offices

etc.

Show question

Question

Give three examples of purposes that might call for the formal register.

Show answer

Answer

Any from this list (or your own ideas):


  • when writing letters of complaint

  • when writing letters of recommendation/ references

  • when sending emails or memos in a corporate or professional environment

  • during court proceedings and other legal procedures

  • during wedding ceremonies and vow renewal ceremonies


Show question

Question

If a sentence uses contractions, is it likely to be formal or casual?

Show answer

Answer

Casual

Show question

Question

Apart from the formal register, what are the other linguistic registers?

Show answer

Answer

  • casual
  • intimate
  • neutral
  • consultative
  • frozen

Show question

Question

List three kinds of people/professions that might use the formal register.

Show answer

Answer

Any from this list (or your own ideas):


  • employers/ bosses
  • teachers/ lecturers
  • lawyers
  • accountants
  • doctors
  • wedding officiants

Show question

Question

Which of these kinds of writing don't typically use the formal register?

Show answer

Answer

Creative writing

Show question

Question

True or false, the formal register can be used to show respect for authority figures.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

In which of these situations is it not necessary to use the formal register?

Show answer

Answer

Chatting to friends and family

Show question

Question

What kind of register is most likely to be used in courtroom proceedings?

Show answer

Answer

Formal

Show question

Question

What is a colloquialism?

Show answer

Answer

Informal and non-standard parts of speech usually used in spoken, not written, language. 

Show question

Question

What kind of grammar does the formal register use?

Show answer

Answer

Standard grammar

Show question

Question

Are academic essays usually written in the formal register or the frozen register?

Show answer

Answer

Formal

Show question

Question

True or false, the formal register is used in ceremonial proceedings of many different kinds. 

Show answer

Answer

true

Show question

Question

Is an idiom an example of casual or formal language?

Show answer

Answer

Casual

Show question

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