Let us begin from the supposition that those of you reading this are unfamiliar with the meaning of the term register as it relates to writing and editing.
See the difference between those two statements? That’s an example of register in writing. Register is the level of formality in spoken or written language. It works the same way it does in speech: the word choices and sentence structures are determined by the register you’re writing (speaking) in. Or, put in a higher register: the register in which one writes determines the diction and sentence structure of the piece. Some would say that the higher register should employ the passive construction. Although that’s often true, it’s far from being a rule; it’s a characteristic we can look for to help us figure out the register, but it’s not a litmus test.
What’s the difference between register and code-switching? One occurs within a language, and the other between languages (or dialects). Perhaps the most common example of code-switching happens with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and standard English. Another example involves any of the Appalachian dialects and standard English in the same manner. One of my acquaintances is a professor of English in South Carolina who often mentions using one form of English with students and another with faculty and administration. She’s code-switching. She’ll even do it within a class period, if it helps students grasp the material.
When I write blog posts either at my own site or for others, I most often use what’s called “consultative” register. That’s the one we use with in a professional setting requiring a certain amount of decorum. It’s a step above “casual,” which is how we talk with our peers and friends in nonwork settings (or at work but planning something outside the office, like an attitude adjustment hour). Sometimes I choose to use casual register, if I feel the topic warrants it. My tweets are nearly all in casual register. Every so often, though, I decide I should probably remind followers that I am a professional who can use the consultative or even formal register. (And then I follow that up with something casual, because I’m me.)
Because I’m a fiction editor, I think about how register relates to that craft and the writing of same. It’s essential to characterization through dialogue. The narrative voice will maintain one register, but the dialogue will often be all over the place, as they say. One character might use formal register nearly all the time (maybe they’re a judge, and want to be sure everyone knows how powerful and well educated they are), and another might speak in casual register to everyone except their closest friends or their spouse/partner, when they slide into the intimate level by using in-jokes and special words that have significance to them alone.
Think about some of the memorable fiction you’ve read. How did register help the dialogue realize the characters?
Join Copyediting on Thursday, July 19, 2018, for the Master Class “Editing for Register, Tone, and Voice” with Karen Conlin for a more in-depth discussion of the five major registers of speech and how they relate to the written word. Registration closes Wednesday, July 18, 2018, at 10 pm ET.