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 Ling 131: Language & Style

 Topic 6 (session A) - Style and Style variation > Language Variation: Register

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Session Overview
Style Variation in USA
Language Variation: Dialect
Language Variation: Register
Style Variation in a poem
Style: What is it?
Authorial and text style
Style Variation Checksheet
Topic 6 'tool' summary
Useful Links

Language Variation: Register


Dialect variation, because it is semi-permanent, is language variation which helps to distinguish one person, or group of people from others. But all of us are also involved in another kind of language variation, which is much more rapid. We vary our language from one situation to another many times in the same day. Typically, the English we use when we write is different from the English we use when we speak, the language students use to write literature essays is different from the language used to write linguistics or biology essays, and the English we use in formal situations like lectures and seminars is different from the English we use when chatting to friends in the coffee bar. This kind of language variation, which can vary from minute to minute in the same day is usually called register.

chuckle stop!

Register can vary according to Medium, Domain or Tenor

The three examples of kinds of variation we have just described are examples of the three main ways in which register can vary. Register variation is motivated by changes in:

Medium (sometimes called 'mode' by other writers): Your language changes according to the medium used (c.f. 'the language of speech', 'the language of writing').

Domain (sometimes called 'field' by other writers): Your language changes according to he domain that the language is related to. This includes (a) the subject matter being spoken or written about (cf. 'the language of science', 'the language of law') and (b) the function that the language is being used for (cf. 'the language of advertising', 'the language of government'). Note that the 'Style Variation in USA' and 'Style Variation in a Poem' exercises were effectively exercises in spotting register variations according to domain inside literary texts. This is sometimes called reregisteration or register borrowing.

Tenor: The tenor of your language (e.g. how politely or formally you speak) changes according to (a) who you are talking or writing to (cf. the language we use when talking to close friends compared with that used when talking to strangers or people who are socially distant from us) and (b) the social situation you find yourself in (e.g a child whose mother is a teacher will talk to her in different ways, depending on whether they are at home or at school).


Leech, G., M. Deuchar and R. Hoogenraad (1982) English Grammar for Today, London: Macmillan, has a chapter on speech and writing (chapter 8, pp. 133-43) and one on tenor and domain (chapter 9: 145-57).
Other readable books devoted entirely to language variation are:
Crystal, D and D. Davy (1969) Investigating English Style, London: Longman.
Freeborn, D. (1996) Style: Text Analysis and Linguistic Criticism, London: Macmillan, chapter 21 (pp. 265-82) is devoted to news report.
Freeborn, D., P. French and D. Langford (1986) Varieties of English: An Introduction to the Study of Language, London: Macmillan.
O'Donnell, W. and L. Todd (1980) Variety in Contemporary English, London: Unwin.

Routledge's Interface series also contains a set of small books, each on one particular variety of language (e.g. the language of advertising, the language of newspapers).


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