Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Language and writing | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Use of different registers

(Note: There does not seem to be a clear consensus on what English word should be used for the comparatively common Swedish and German words “stilnivå” respectively “Stilebene”. “Register” seems to be the best choice, cf. Register_(linguistics)w; although it may possibly be wider in meaning. Alternate suggestions are welcome.)

One of the main principles of writing I learned in school was to keep consistently to one single register when writing a text. Another was to avoid registers that were too formal or too colloquial. As an adult, after having spent much time both on writing texts of various kinds and reading on the topic of writing, I view this advice as misguided: A (non-fictional) text should be judged on criteria such as how logical and understandable it is—consistency and moderacy be damned. Whereas I admit that too great variations can be inappropriate or even laughable (“Prithee, have u seen my extraordinarily kewl apparatus.”) I see the distinctions as largely artificial and unnecessary—and I feel free to use whatever word happens to suit my purposes best on these pages. I note that:

  1. The register a certain word belongs to can change drastically over time. There is, in particular, a tendency for words to move from “lower” registers to “higher”; with the colloquialisms of yesterday being main-stream words of today, and the “sophisticated” words becoming archaic. (Largely based on every generation bringing many of their childhood words with them as adults, instead of taking over the words used by the previous generations. Another important factor is likely the shift away from Latin and Greek as school languages.)

  2. The classification of individual words can vary from locale to locale, person to person, and circle to circle. The average British professor will likely consider “thus” a perfectly everyday word; whereas a US-American construction worker will consider it snobbery—or possibly even be uncertain how it is to be interpreted.

  3. Finding an appropriate word is often a hard, sometimes impossible, task; and by restricting one self to one register the task is made harder yet. Why should anyone unnecessarily handicap himself? (I note that this opinion may originally have been influenced by my exposure to English and German as secondary languages: Naturally, my vocabulary and my ability to recognize the register of a word were both originally limited. However, even today, when I have an over-average vocabulary compared to native speakers, I am still of the same opinion.)

  4. Many uses of registers are affected and with limited justification. Consider the case of a legal text: Legal texts, in my opinion, are typically written with more regard to using a specific, traditional style than in producing understandable output. (I also suspect that a wish to limit the number of people able to read laws and related texts plays in: If the man on the street has to hire a lawyer to even get an understandable interpretation of a relevant law, lawyers will certainly benefit.)

  5. The opinion that one particular register is superior to another is usually a result of the self-flattering opinion that ones own register is the appropriate one. (This is an example of the common phenomenon that we all tend to rationalize the world to consider our own behaviors, circles, whatnot, superior to those of others—leaving rational argumentation behind.)

Looking at the words and formulations I typically use, many count as belonging to a comparatively high register—possibly even look affected to some readers. Nevertheless: This is the way I naturally write (as demonstrated by the great variation of register). When I want to adapt a way of writing more typical for e.g. an Internet forum, I have to deliberately pay attention to what I do. At the same time, however, if I drop in a word that suits its purpose, but may seem to come from a different register, this is also (often) what comes naturally to me, not a deliberate attempt to play with different registers. (Exceptions do occur; notably, pieces of dialog, hypothetical or real, obviously adhere to an entirely different set of rules.) As for the reason why I tend to use the words I do: I did not have a childhood in an English speaking country, I have read enormous amounts of science of various kinds, I have often enjoyed somewhat older English fiction (including Shakespeare and many nineteenth-century writers), words common between English and Swedish or English and German (often having a root in the classical languages) naturally come easier to me, I have some limited study of French and Latin, and I occasionally resort to dictionaries to find the appropriate English word corresponding to a Swedish or German one. (For “colonials”, it may also be of importance that the Swedish schools teach British English; specifically, a version that tends to trail behind the native language somewhat in its development, because the teachers are strongly influenced by what was considered correct when they originally learned the language. Notably, my high-school English teacher was in her sixties.) At the same time, however, I am influenced by computer jargon, typical Internet expressions, and modern movies and TV series.