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We all use different forms of language in different situations. At the most extreme, you’ll probably know that in casual conversation with friends you will use very different language from that which you’d use at a job interview.

The kinds of differences will relate to vocabulary (the word choices you make) but also to grammar (the structures, the complexity, the patterns of words).

English is a language that has a large vocabulary, with many words being closely linked in meaning but carrying slightly different connotations. Often, these words are members of the same word class (i.e. verbs, nouns or adjectives) but fit into different registers (i.e. are seen as more formal, informal, appropriate in certain situations).

Often the informal expressions will vary depending on the area you live in and the social groups you mix with. Some forms of slang and dialect may well appear frequently in casual conversation, but not in formal writing.

So for example, if you’re a teenager from London you might say of a footballer that they have bare skills, but if you were reading a newspaper report about the same player, you might see it written as  That footballer has bountiful ability!

The register we use depends on who we are with, the impression we want to convey and the language we have at our disposal. You can’t switch into a more formal register if you’ve never learned it, and likewise you can’t switch into local slang unless you have learned it.

To a large extent, register is linked to your word choices (what linguists call lexical choices), but there are times when grammar is relevant to register. Take for example, a number of expressions we use in everyday English:

  • get off
  • go out
  • go up
  • tell off

These all consist of what we call phrasal verbs, verbs with an extra ‘particle’ (often a preposition).

In English we also have a range of other verbs that do almost exactly the same job as these phrasal verbs, but that are seen as being of a higher register:

  • get off = alight
  • go out = depart
  • go up = ascend
  • tell off = reprimand

You would probably not use most of these higher register verbs in normal conversation, but might do in more formal situations. You might hear them in official announcements too.

Another example of when grammar is relevant to register might be with what are called directives, expressions that are used to get others to do something in some way.

In one situation you might choose to use an imperative e.g.

  • Tell him we are waiting for the order. [S1A-004 #46]

In another situation you might decide to use a less direct form such as an interrogative, e.g.

  • If that’s the case, would you like to pick one up? [S1B-075 #13]

Though interrogatives are typically used to ask questions, they can also be used in this indirect way to request others to carry out actions.

The form you choose will depend on your relationship with the people you are talking to, the intention behind what you are saying, and the immediate context you are in.

You would be less likely to say

  • Do you think you would mind helping me up?

... if you had just fallen off a station platform into the path of an oncoming train, rather than just:

  • Help!

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