Register is a study of how humans approach communication in the real world.

Register is a study of how humans approach communication in the real world. Image by:UCSB


Register: Introduction

English Language candidates are required to recognize the appropriate use of registers depending with situation, settings, occasion or purpose as well as to recognize the purpose of a given utterance and tell whether it was for example made to ridicule, praise, belittle, motivate, cheer or discourage. In addition students should tell whether an utterance is appropriate in a given set of circumstance.

Register questions are set in Section B of Paper 2 and come with a total of 10 marks. These are usually split into 5 questions with each question worth 2 marks. Number 1 to 4 is usually made up of situations upon which two sub-questions are set with each sub-question worth 1 mark. The 5th question is usually a matching question with the candidate usually required to match four items from one list with four items in another list.

Common types register questions

  1. Questions that ask for the most likely feelings/emotions that are likely to be generated in a given case. For example: In a case where an individual learns that their relative has died they are likely to feel sorrow/grief, if they receive the news that they have passed their O Levels they are likely to feel elated or even euphoric and so on.
  2. What does each response/utterance reveal about your character? In these types of situations the candidate is presented with a scenario where a certain individual makes two different utterances that reveal two different characters and the candidate is asked,in a way, to name the likely character of the person who would make each of the utterances. For example you have run out your weekly allowance you can either go to your father and say, “My pocket money is finished give me more.” Or you say, ” Daddy I have used up all my money buying an essential study book, I wonder if its possible for you to give me more money this week.” What would your father think of your character in each case? Here two different characters are revealed. In the first instance you are being disrespectful and demanding and the second case shows that you are respectful and guileless (upfront).
  3. Give two reasons why an individual would say something. In such questions a person makes an ambiguous utterance/gesture/action that can be interpreted in two very different ways and the candidate is asked to provide these ways. For example your mother hires an electrician to do repairs in your house and when the job is done the electrician hands her the bill she looks at it and exclaims,” Is this the charge!” There are two different reasons why she would do this either the price is unexpectedly low and she is somewhat pleasantly surprised that way or it could be the bill is shockingly high.
  4. How would you describe your mood? The nature of these questions does not differ much from the ones on character and emotions/feelings.
  5. What does each response tell you about the speaker’s attitude towards your problem? Again as with character, feelings and mood questions a scenario is followed by two responses that are indicative of two different attitudes and the candidate should be able to pick these out for example is the speaker being sarcastic, prejudicial or contemptuous or is he/she being considerate, caring and helpful?
  6. What does each response reveal about your manner? Again these questions are very similar to the attitude, character and feelings questions above. Most candidates confuse character and manner the two are not the same at all. We will attempt to explain the difference in the two in the coming chapters.
  7. Match utterances and their appropriate intentions/manners/feelings/moods or attitudes.


Regardless of the question you are presented with, you should know that register, unlike say Maths, is all about appropriateness which means that there are a range of acceptable answers and not just one answer. The question that should be at the foremost of your mind is: What would a normal person do/think? How would a normal person react/feel? The keyword being normal.

Factors affecting register

As has been already alluded to above there are several factors that affect the appropriateness of a given utterance or behavior because what may be perfectly acceptable in one instance may be frowned upon or cause offense in another instance. Consider the following examples and try to guess situations where they would be appropriate:

  • “Jabulani you sly bastard, that’s what you have been hiding from me! You are a good friend bro.”
  • “The dollar has gained on the Euro owing to an expected interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve on the back of strong growth figures.”
  • ” The patient has been admitted now. He is a 52 year old male with a history of cardio vascular illnesses, he was presenting symptoms of aphasia and possible dementia. It is not yet clear if this is a result of Alzheimer’s or it was just brought about by some sort of psychotic break.”
  • ‘The “quantum” in quantum physics refers to the fact that everything in quantum physics comes in discrete amounts. A beam of light can only contain integer numbers of photons– 1, 2, 3, 137, but never 1.5 or 22.7. ‘

As can clearly be observed from above these utterances can only be made in certain circumstances. Some of them when made to some people can cause offense while some are likely to be met with blank stares of confusion. There are several reasons for this:


This refers to the situation/setting where the exchange takes place. People behave and speak differently depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. This may also mean a place, location, position or momentary state in which the conversation takes place. For example the context might be a wedding, a party with friends, a funeral, a scuffle, a train station or a birthday. The appropriateness of a given utterance varies depending on the circumstances. Smiling and dancing would usually be out of place at a funeral for example.


Status refers to the rank one holds in society. It also refers to the relationship between/among those communicating with each other. It might well be perfectly normal for two friends to trade banter with each other as a sign of affection for example friends might even call each other idiot without causing any offense whatsoever and even getting laughs in return. Calling your father/mother an idiot to his/her face is unlikely going to be met with a similar response however, chances are you would not want to find out the result of such an utterance!


This refers to the matter under discussion. Even if it is a case of two friends talking it is unlikely they will use the same language and tone for different topics. For example the language we use when discussing our relationship with friends would be different to the language we use when discussing our religion. A lot of the time there are subjects with their own peculiar terms and phrases often referred to as functional languages. For example doctors, economists, programmers (hackers), physicists and marine biologists have their own specialist languages and terms that they can only use among themselves that would be precise and perfectly sensible to themselves but confusing when used in other settings.


There is a purpose behind every act of communication and the aim which you are angling to achieve plays an important role in determining the language and behavior that you employ during the process. Examples of purpose include to hurt, to persuade, to caution, to warn, to amuse, to comfort, to congratulate and to mock. In all cases the choice of language will reflect the purpose behind the communication.

Degree of formality

As shown during the discussion of status above the relationship between two people affects how they communicate with one another. There are formal relationships which usually include professional relationships at work, the relationship between a teacher and a student, patient and doctor, superior and subordinate among others. These relationships are notable by the constant use of titles of the people involved. For example Doctor, sir, Mr, Mrs, Ms, Professor, Honorable, Sir, Lord, Your Grace, Excellency and Your Majesty. Relationships can also be semi-formal for example the relationship between parents and their children, people who are acquainted with one another and work colleagues who meet each other for drinks after work. Informal relationships exists between people who can/are expected to be overly-familiar with one another for example best friends (sometimes called BFFs).

In the next topic we will look at how you should approach and answer register questions using some varied and actual examples taken from past examination papers.

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