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Register
by Ron Martinez

Saying the Right Thing at the Right Time

I recently received an email from a business colleague that began like this:

How are things with you? And your mom? How is she?

She knew that my mother was in hospital at the time, and wanted to show concern. It was a rather chatty beginning to a letter, which was fine since we are colleagues. What was perhaps less appropriate was her use of the word mom. And the reason this sounded a little strange relates to the issue of "register".

Register

The word mom has exactly the same meaning as mother, but it sounds too informal to use in a professional context. Even when trying to sound friendly, you should use the more "neutral" word mother, unless you know the person that you are referring to very well. It is a good example of how using the wrong register can make an otherwise successful piece of communication sound strange.

Register in the Dictionary

The Macmillan Essential Dictionary helps learners of English to avoid these (sometimes embarrassing) misuses. At some entries, you will see register "labels", which show that the word is not neutral. Look at the entries for mother and mom. Notice that mother has no register label: this means that it is neutral and safe to use in almost any context. But mom is labeled informal, which means that you should pay extra attention to when and where you use it.

There are many examples of register labels in the dictionary. These three words express the same idea, for example, but with three different levels of formality:

strike formal
hit neutral
bash informal

Grammatically, they all function in the same way:

He
hit
the nail with a hammer.
struck
bashed

Which should you use? There is no fixed rule, but when you are not sure which register to use, think of how you want to sound.

  Formal Informal Neutral
I want to sound friendly.
No
Maybe
OK
I want to sound official.
Yes
No
OK
I want to sound serious.
Yes
No
OK
I want to use the least risky word.
No
No
Yes
I don't want to sound too serious.
No
Yes
No

This concept of formality affects expressions as well as individual words. Consider these:

They found it most agreeable. formal
They really enjoyed themselves. neutral
They had a ball. informal

Additional care should be taken before attempting to say a word or expression that is labeled informal. Informal words and expressions can sometimes sound strange when spoken by a non-native speaker of English. If you feel that your accent is native-like, a word that is labeled informal might be OK to use. Otherwise, be careful.

Domain Labels

Imagine that you are jogging with a friend. She turns to you and says:

Wait. I'm short of respiration.

Then you pass an ATM and she says:

I'm just going to take out some liquid assets.

Finally, you invite her to have lunch and she says:

No, thanks. I'm having lunch in my abode.

If this sounds strange to you, it's because some of the words that your friend is using are not neutral, but belong to specific "domains". The word respiration means the same as "breath" or "breathing", but is used mainly by doctors and nurses. In other words, it belongs to the medical domain. Similarly, liquid assets is a business term, and abode is literary.

When a word belongs to a specific domain, the Macmillan Essential Dictionary shows this by giving "domain labels". These include: science, journalism, literary, and computing. You can find a list of all the labels on page 829 of the dictionary.

Here are some examples that illustrate the contrast between neutral and domain-specific registers:

Domain-Specific Term Domain Neutral Term
respiration medical breath, breathing
liquid assets business money
abode literary home, house
minor legal child, young person
ferrous science containing iron

So, instead of short of respiration, it is more natural to say short of breath in a social situation. Similarly, take out some money and at home are more natural than take out some liquid assets and in my abode.

Like formal and informal words, words that belong to specific domains have a more limited use. But they do have a role in the right context. It would sound strange to talk about minors if you were talking to a friend, but it would sound completely normal if used in a court of law. The important thing is to know which word to choose to suit the situation.

Conclusion

The register and domain labels given in the Macmillan Essential Dictionary are guides, but there is never a fixed rule as to which register is appropriate to any given situation. Could someone communicate without paying attention to register? Of course. After all, I understood what my colleague was trying to say in her email. However, by using the word mom, her message sounded a little strange.

By using the "wrong" register, you may (at best) fail to convey the correct message or (at worst) even cause offence. So when you see a label like informal or literary next to a word or expression in the Macmillan Essential Dictionary, be careful how you use it. It might help you to avoid uncomfortable situations.