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Read the Room

There is a concept in language that can be a bit of a bully to new writers. Just when they thought they were getting the hang of it, it swoops in and changes the rules, as if to say, “How do you like me know, punk?”

I am referring to the concept of register, which describes, among other phenomena, the relationship between grammar rules, vocabulary and context.

It is easy for people to tell when they are out of their element in social situations because all the clues appear right in front of them, and because someone in the place will probably correct their behaviour should they ever stray from the norm. We are all too familiar with manners, fashion, ingroup-outgroup dynamics, relationships of power, etc., and with the consequences of making a faux pas in social situations.

However, in writing situations, the social context is not so obvious, and there is no instant feedback. A writer has to imagine this context and apply the appropriate rules and use the correct vocabulary. This is the tricky part. You may have been taught to write in a very formal, educated register. You may have been told this was the one correct way to write, which creates an unhelpful bias, allowing unfamiliar contexts to sneak up on you when you least expect them.

A good example of using the wrong register are TV scripts written by rookie screenwriters. The advent of on-demand video and new media outlets has given many new screenwriters the chance to start out in this field. Listen closely to any of the latest police dramas or suspense thrillers and you will notice that the dialogues do not flow as naturally as they should, as infinitives are not split and sentences do not end with prepositions, breaking the rules of the colloquial register.

The colloquial register reflects how people communicate on a daily basis to take care of their business as swiftly as possible, and here, the rules of writing letters and newspaper articles do not apply. That kind of talk is cumbersome, awkward and just plain wrong.

There is an old, slightly obscene joke that illustrates this idea. It’s the one about the man from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who travels to Charleston on holiday with his family.

“Where are y’all from?”

“Where we are from, we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

“All right. Where are y’all from, jerk?”

The Southern woman cleverly demonstrates her knowledge of formal and colloquial registers while policing the Northern man’s language.

So, before you write, please, have some common sense, and read the room. Imagine who your audience is and use the correct register for that context.

Today, there is even an international industry standard to identify registers as different data sets, for applications in natural language processing, translation, etc. And if machines can do it, it means the rules are clear enough for us to understand. We just need a little bit of training and practice.

Our translation and proofreading professionals have countless hours of experience writing in all contexts and possess the knowledge to back their skills up. Should you ever need our expertise, we’re only a phone call, e-mail or chat away.