Context and Register

An important distinction can be made between the context of situation and register of a text. They often seem to be conflated but Halliday does distinguish between the two.

Here is a headline from the satirical magazine The Onion:

Coarse Sponge Excited To Join The Smith Family Dishwashing Team

The humour here works only because we can make a distinction between the context of situation and the language that typically accompanies it – by a mixing of the register of a company announcement (excited to join, the ~ team) with an unexpected field choice (sponge).

Context of situation, as the name suggests, is “the immediate environment in which a text is actually functioning ” (H & H, p.46), or the social and physical environment where the action takes place in terms of its field, tenor and mode. Importantly, this may or may not involve language. In fact, there are certain contexts in which the use of language is actively discouraged or even proscribed, such as Berstein’s (1971) concept of ‘resticted codes’ or the cultural value of silence in Japan (King, 2011). If you’ve ever been on a visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, with the attendants continually calling for silence, you’ll see one good example.

Register, on the other hand, is entirely semantic and is the “configuration of meanings that are typically associated with a particular situational configuration [and] include(s) the expressions, the lexico-grammatical and phonological features, that typically accompany or REALISE these meanings” (H & H, p.38-39). Register is a probabilistic tendency for certain items from the semantic and lexico-grammatical (and phonological/graphical) systems of ideational, interpersonal and textual meanings to co-occur in certain contexts. It is the semantic interface between the external context and the internal language of a particular text, and may range from restricted registers (the language of aviation, for example) to relatively open ones (casual conversation) although no registers are completely open as even casual conversation exists within certain boundaries and conventions.

Register and Participants

Register can be a tricky concept for a lot of students. They often focus solely on the grammatical plane and forget about the social context in which it occurs (most EFL textbooks don’t really help in this regard). On the other hand, one mistake I think that some students (and teachers) make is thinking that register is determined solely by mode and that the situation automatically dictates language choice – that business English = more polite. If you look at the business e-mails section on the BNC, for example, you’ll find they are mostly about football. Important in register is also field and tenor choices.

I think, however, it is not the context of situation itself that is the sole determiner but the participants’ perception of that situation that leads to variation in language. Register is not a pre-existing independent set of truth-conditions but is negotiated by the participants as the situation unfolds. There is a wonderful Peanuts cartoon that illustrates this quite well (you can see it here) where Snoopy is sitting outside and one by one other characters walk past and greet him. The interesting thing is that, while the mode and field is the same, each character varies slightly in the level of formality used in the greeting, from Lucy’s simple ‘Hi Snoopy’ to Violet formally shaking Snoopy’s hand, reflecting perhaps differences in how each character perceives the tenor relationship between themselves and Snoopy. It’s quite a useful little cartoon to use in class.

Register is not, however, open-ended choice but is, I think, also constrained by the context of culture. I think the relation between the two is that the culture makes certain linguistic choices available within a given context of situation from which the participants are able to draw from as the text unfolds. This is one reason why the Peanuts cartoon is funny, in that it plays with our expectations of what is permissible within that context. I think this is also an important point for EFL teaching in general as well. It is often the teacher, or the textbook, who determines the linguistic resources for the student to then use, and the student is judged on how well they use these predetermined lexicogrammatical choices. I think instead the role of the teacher is to provide the range of lexicogrammatical options available from which the student may then choose. I had an Advanced student once who, no matter how many times we would ‘practise’ polite requests, would invariably end each lesson with a direct “Please give me that paper”. But then I realised that he was just that kind of guy.

Activity: Register and text

I’ve been doing a lot of activities recently trying to get students thinking about how context affects language choice. Here is one featuring three texts related to travel – two from a tourist booklet and one from the SMH travel section. Here are the texts:

Text 1:

The Upper Mountains continue to be very popular with many visitors to Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Day trippers come to roam and take in all that is wonderful about our villages. Others come for the challenge of an 8 hour bush walk or rock climbing.

(imag free guide, 2008)

Text 2:

Megalong Books

Full range of books for adults and children.

Friendly service.

Orders taken.


(Printed in imag)

Text 3:

Tipping Point

In the wacky world of gratuities, it’s hard to know how much to give to whom, writes Peter Preston.

If it’s Monday, it must be Belgium; so plan to leave 10 per cent on the brasserie plate. Tomorrow, in France, we’ll do service compris, though a few more euros more may reward an unlikely smile or a spurt of speed. Wednesday? Spain, where those who run restaurants themselves insist that 3 per cent or 4 per cent is quite enough…Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of tipping.

(Sydney Morning Herald, 2008)

After looking briefly at the three texts, we discuss the field, tenor and mode of each of them. To make it simpler for EFL classes I often refer to it as the ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the text.

FIELD (what): The domain for texts 1 & 3 is ‘travel/tourism’ while text 2 is commercial (although being in a travel magazine and located in a predominantly tourist area it could be said that it also falls within the ‘tourism’ domain). Text 1 is perhaps written by a tourist board for promotional purposes and the goal-orientation could be persuading tourist to visit the region. Text 2 is an advertisement, essentially informing potential customers of its existence. Text 3 is a newspaper travel article, so its purpose is entertaining regular readers.

TENOR (who): The social distance for Text 1 would be medium: it is appealing to people with an interest in travel but also wants its appeal to be broad to encourage new visitors. Text 2 is a vendor-customer relationship but at maximum social distance – it wants as many customers as possible but perhaps would have few repeat customers. Text 3, on the other hand, despite being a newspaper text, might have the closest social distance – it has a known demographic and a regular readership.

MODE (How): All three texts are written and have a similar language role, yet they do differ when it comes to how they are organised.

After looking at the field, tenor and mode, we then go on to discuss how these affect the language choices in the texts. In particular, it’s interesting how these register choices affect the length and complexity of the words and sentences in each text. It is a useful activity because many EFL learners come to class with pre-conceived ideas of language that are often very structural – that language is just a set of structures to be learnt independent of any social context. For the same reason it can also be challenging.

Register and demonstratives

Here is an exchange (1) from the TV show Friends:

Ross: [Entering] What is this dive? Only you could’ve picked this place.

Mrs. Bing: Oooh, c’mon, shut up, it’s fun. Gimme a hug.

At first this seems a simple exchange but I think for an EFL learner it actually could be quite difficult. It’s not entirely clear what is going on. It begins with the phrase, generally taught in the first lessons of EFL classes, ‘What is X?’ and so we would expect an answer of ‘It’s a Y.’ Yet from the exchange it is quite clear that they both know exactly what they are talking about. There is a chain of reference across the turns: this dive…this place…it. It seems then that it is not a simple request for information.

When we teach the structure ‘What is X?’ we are generally focused on some kind of unknown object or exchange of information, as in this example (2) from Friends:

Monica: What is it?

Rachel: Country club newsletter.

In this next example (3), however, the reference is known and the exchange is actually a request for an explanation:

ROSS: What is that? [referring to the sandwich]

JOEY: For the ride.

This results in an appropriate response, invoking Gricean conversation rules, of ‘For the ride‘ and not ‘It’s a sandwich‘. This difference between example 2 and 3 may not be entirely clear for an EFL learner.

Example 3 is, however, still essentially an exchange of information. In both example 2 and 3 the focus remains on the field of discourse which finds expression in ideational meanings and the choice of Participant in the Relational clause. The choice is between Country club newsletter (identifying intensive) or for the ride (attributive circumstantial). In example 1, however, there is no real clear link between the question (What is this dive?) and any apparent answer. Ross, in fact, seems to answer it himself (Only you could’ve picked this dive).

I think the focus here is actually on the tenor of discourse, the relationship between the speakers and evaluation of choice of venue. Mrs Bing (re)establishes the dominant power position between them with an imperative clause (shut up) yet the lexical choices (dive, picked, fun) indicate a close relationship between them. The choices at an expression stratum also reinforce this closeness (c’mon, gimme).

The choice of demonstrative, then, seems to reflect choices made at a register level and not really what they actually refer to.