Improving your formal register (part 1)

Most of my readers and clients are conference interpreters. The types of meetings we interpret at usually call for a neutral-ish register, sometimes with elements of formality or technical vocabulary.

In general, I have found that my coaching clients sometimes struggle with everyday, colloquial language, but they don’t often have to produce that sort of register at work; whereas a formal register is important when interpreting politicians’ speeches, inaugural addresses, prize-giving ceremonies, etc.

This is why I’ve chosen to focus on improving your formal register.

Hallmarks of formal register in speech

There are certain elements of syntax and vocabulary that mark speech (and writing) as being either towards the formal end of the spectrum, or closer to the informal end.

Exercise 1: brainstorming

I’m sure you can think of some of these features. Take a minute to write down everything you can think of that indicates formality in English (it may not be the same as in your A language; for example, the ‘tu/vous’ or ‘du/Sie’ distinction may be a very obvious way to show formality in your A language, but it doesn’t exist in English).

Exercise 2: comparing texts

Find two articles about the same subject, one from a tabloid (The Sun, The Mirror, The Star), and one from a broadsheet such as The Guardian or the Financial Times.

Use a highlighter to go through the two articles, picking out expressions you consider to be particularly formal or informal. Think about how the two publications talk about the same thing, and what linguistic devices they use. See if you can add to your list or table of formal/informal features (that you started in exercise 1).

I’ve suggested two articles (below), but you can of course find your own!

Keir Starmer vows to FREEZE council tax bills – days before Brits hit with massive hike

Keir Starmer will tomorrow unveil a major promise to freeze council tax bills.

Launching Labour’s local election campaign in Swindon, it is the “party of lower taxes for working people”.

As households face a hike in bills on Saturday, he will say he would use a windfall tax on oil and gas giants to stop them rising this year if he was in power.

Average council tax bills are set to exceed £2,000 for the first time as families are clobbered with a 5.1% increase.

The average Band D council tax set by local authorities in England for 2023-24 will be £2,065 – a rise of £99 on the 2022-23 figure of £1,966.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has allowed cash-strapped councils to bring in the whopping increases as they struggle with government cuts.

Previously, town, city and county halls could only increase bills by 3% without a referendum.

At Labour’s local election launch on Thursday, Mr Starmer will say: “If there was a Labour Government, you could take that council tax rise you just got and rip it up.”

Taking aim at Rishi Sunak’s plan to hand a tax cut to those with the biggest pension pots, he will say: “A Labour Government would freeze your council tax this year – that’s our choice.

Labour would freeze council tax for one year, says Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer has pledged to use an extended windfall tax to freeze council tax for one year as Labour kicked off its local election campaign on Thursday.

Days before millions of people in England see their council tax bills rise by 5% in April, the Labour leader challenged Rishi Sunak to use “the money that is already on the table” and introduce the tax cut tomorrow.

However, Starmer would not commit to freezing council tax if Labour won the next general election.

In the local elections on 4 May more than 8,000 council seats will be contested across 84 metropolitan, unitary and district councils in England, as well as four English mayoralties.

Calling the prime minister “Mr 1%”, Starmer said at an event in Swindon that the Conservatives would always promise “tax cuts for the richest 1% while working people pay the problem, but this has to change”.

Starmer insisted the government had the money to freeze council tax bills but was choosing not to. Speaking alongside Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves, he said Labour’s council tax cut “matches the ambition” of communities that wanted change but were being failed by the Conservative government.

The Guardian understands that Labour would fund the council tax cut using its proposed extended windfall tax that the Conservatives did not adopt in full.

Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said the council tax cut pledge showed a clear difference between who the prime minister stood for and who Labour represented.

Labour sees the 4 May poll as an opportunity to road-test some its policy ideas on NHS waiting lists and safer streets, as well as the cost of living crisis, rather than just going on the attack.

What does your list or table look like? Here’s what I picked up on in the two articles above:

  • Text 1: more INFORMAL. Words in capitals; emotive language; vocabulary like ‘cash-strapped’, ‘a hike’, ‘clobbered with’.
  • Text 2: more FORMAL. Longer sentences; more indirect sentence structure; vocabulary like ‘to be contested’, ‘to adopt in full’.

And here is my table:

Table of hallmarks of register

Vulgarity, swear words
Fillers (I mean, you know, like, so)
ContractionsFull forms
Phrasal verbsLatin or Greek roots
Active verb formPassive verb forms
AbbreviationsFull form
Short Anglo-Saxon words (do, hit, put, look, give, run, jump, buy)Latin or Greek origins
Common wordsspecialised or technical words
Direct questionsIndirect questions
Simple sentencesLong sentences, complex grammar (subordination)
Question tags
Lots of; loads of; make, do, get, nice, good“A great deal of”, “many”; more precise vocabulary
more personalMore impersonal
Sloppy pronunciation, glottal stopsClear enunciation

The exercises I’ve focused on so far aim to improve your awareness of register.

To make improvements in your formal register, you will need to do three things (concurrently, if you like):

  • improve your awareness
  • do some vocabulary-building
  • activate your new expressions

I can’t cover them all in a single post, so I’ll suggest two more exercises to work on awareness:

  • pure shadowing (i.e. simultaneously repeating what a speaker is saying). Pick a speech in English that you know to be formal because of the setting (an academic conference, a speech by a Head of State, etc.) and shadow it. Get used to saying some of the more formal phrases out loud. Write down any useful phrases.
  • highlighting useful phrases: choose a text that you know is formal, for example an article in an academic journal, an opinion piece in a reputable publication, or the transcript of a politician’s speech. You may need some help from a native speaker, because some journalistic writing in English isn’t actually that formal. Go through the text with a highlighter, picking out formal collocations or phrases. Have a think about what you might have used instead – would you have chosen a more informal option? Note down 3 or 4 formal phrases and make up some example sentences to say out loud.

I hope this post has given you some ideas! More on register soon…

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