Register and vocabulary

This lesson invites students to explore the differences and similarities between vocabulary pairs like make and produce, take and transfer, and give and provide.

Goals

  • Use an implicit understanding of language and register to identify usage differences between example sentences.
  • Understand the usage differences between simple, informal vocabulary and technical, formal vocabulary.
  • Relate particular vocabulary items to appropriate contexts of use.
  • Consider word histories and their relationship with formality.
  • Practise using a dictionary and thesaurus to explore register and formality in vocabulary.

Lesson Plan

The Activity page can be found in the menu entitled 'This Unit' in the upper right corner of this page. The Activity page contains slides for display on a projector or smart board. Each slide presents two versions of a sentence from our corpus - one of the versions is exactly as it was spoken or written in real life, and one of the versions has been altered by one word. 

Invite your students to look at the slides and do the following:

  • Identify the difference between the two example sentences - what precisely has changed from the first to the second? Write down the words that have changed.
  • Identify the effect of the difference between the two sentences.
  • Ask which sentence seems more appropriate.
  • Ask which contexts might be appropriate for each sentence. 

Your students should see that the single changed word can make a significant difference - one version may seem more formal or informal, or more natural or unnatural. The difference is between the words make, take, and give and their apparent synonyms produce, transfer/transport, and provide. Although the meanings may be similar, the uses can be quite different.

After the students have identified the changed words, ask them to describe and group each word using the final slide in the Activity page. They might come up with something like the following:

  • Make, take, and give are similar to each other.
    • They have one syllable.
    • They are informal. 
    • They have a very general meaning.
  • Produce, transfer, transport, and provide are similar to each other.
    • They have two syllables.
    • They are relatively formal.
    • They have a slightly more specific meaning.

How is it that these near-synonyms can be so different? Make, take, and give have Germanic etymology - they come from Old English. Produce, transfer, transport, and provide have Romance etymology - they've entered English from Latin or French. Latin and French were once the primary languages of learning in Europe, and even today, words with Romance roots still carry an air of learning. They tend to be used in the sciences, or in formal writing. Words with Germanic roots still carry a colloquial air or an everyday, informal air. 

Now ask students the following questions:

  • Which words are most appropriate for a scientific essay?
  • Which words are you more likely to use chatting with friends?
  • Which words might you use with your GP when you go for a checkup?
  • Which words would you use in a job interview?
  • What other situations or scenarios can you think of where choosing one word over another isn't so easy?

Further Work

Ask students to find other words that have the same meaning, but which are used in different registers. Try the following:

  • First, have students try to think of similar word pairs without using any aids like dictionaries. They might try to think of short, simple words, and then think of synonyms, or they might try to think of longer, technical words and try to think of synonyms.
  • Then, let them use a thesaurus, online or in print. Have them sort through the list of synonyms and divide words into categories such as 'formal', 'informal', and 'semi-formal'. 
  • Finally, encourage them to check a historical dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary (which is online here - many schools and libraries have a subscription). Do the less formal words have Germanic roots? Do the more formal words have Romance roots, such as Latin or French roots?

 

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