On Playing with Register

Oct 25, 2021

By Christine Carron

Which is more memorable? A girl in a beautiful pink prom dress or a girl in a beautiful pink prom dress wearing sky blue sneakers? Blue sneaker girl wins in my book every time.

A girl in a pink prom dress is expected. A girl in a pink prom dress wearing sky blue sneakers . . . not so much. The mix of formal and casual wear creates a more potent effect. An effect that lasts. Just as a budding fashionista might smartly use high and low fashion to create a lasting effect, so can we writers strategically use high and low (and medium) speech registers to punch up the impact of our dialogue.

What is Speech Register?

In The Art of Voice, poet Tony Hoagland defines speech register as:

The “register” of speech is most often described by metaphors of altitude; we say, high register, middle register, or low register. These are different ways of describing the degree of formality of a particular speaker or a piece of writing. Such registers of speech are the finely tuned mechanism that tells the reader something about who is speaking or how they feel about the subject they are speaking of. Is the speaker sophisticated, educated, average, plain, or vulgar? Is the speech pretentious, condescending, cold, flattering, daring, utilitarian, incisive, angry, or neutral? A host of nuances and implications are attached to all word choices and word combinations. (p. 57)

He gives these examples to clarify each (p. 58) :

  • We had lunch at the 4th Street Diner. (Middle) 

  • We took our midday repast at Chez Panisse. (High)

  • We pigged out at Burger King. (Low)

Playing with Register

Play 1: Mix-n-Match

One of the easiest ways to play with speech register is to mix high and low like our sneaker-clad fashionista did. Riffing off Hoagland’s examples above, using the mix-n-match technique, we get:

  • We pigged out at Chez Panisse. 
  • We took our midday repast at Burger King.

There is fun, playfulness, and humor in mixing high and low registers. 

Play 2: Full-on Character Trait

Another way to play is to give a particular character a consistent high or low speech register. If you do this, the characterization has to be such that the reader will believe that the character would really speak in such an off-norm manner (i.e., outside the familiarity of the middle register), because it will be noticeable, i.e., a full-on distinguishable character trait. As Hoagland says, [h]igh and low speech registers are more self-conscious in their pitch then the middle speech register. They call attention to themselves. (p. 63) 

Play 3: Conversational One-off

A third way to sneak in some register playfulness is to have characters adopt a high or low register for a conversation or a scene. There would, of course, need to be a plot set-up for such a scene. For example, a group of high school football players lose a bet and have to participate in the school’s production of The Tempest. To mock the more serious drama students, the football players have a loud conversation in the cafeteria mimicking Shakespearean speech patterns. 

Two ways to shape such a scene pop into my head immediately. The football players effectively mimic Shakespearean language, which would imply that they’ve studied and integrated the language of the play. So embodying a little less of the dumb jock, don’t care image that they want to maintain. Or two, they are doing a bad, bad impression of Shakespeare and effectively upholding the dumb jock stereotype. 

Word to the Foolish and to the Wise

These are just a few ways that you can use speech register to punch up dialogue. Such play requires that you and your characters let loose and even be a bit foolish to get to the register play fun. The only caveat is what Hoagland says in the first quote above, that a host of nuances and implications are attached to all word choices and word combinations

The moment that you start playing with a character’s speech register, you are also playing with that character’s characterization, i.e., who they are. Our characters, like ourselves, are revealed by the manner in which they speak and by the words that they choose. So always remember when playing with speech register: V'rily beest thee foolish, dear reader, but eke beest thee wise.


The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  • Consider one of your main character’s dialogue lines. Is it written in a middle, high, or low register? Rewrite the line in each of the other two registers, e.g., if your dialogue line is currently written in a high register, rewrite it in both the middle and low register. 
  • Do you have any characters who might lend themselves to having a high (or low) speech register? If so, experiment with changing up their dialogue lines into the high (or low) pattern. What effect does the change have on the dialogue’s potency?
  • Write the “football players mimicking Shakespeare” scene above. Here is an English to Shakespearean translator to add to your fun.  
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