Sociolinguistics


Register Variation

As the name indicates, researchers concerned with register variation focus on the question to what extent different spoken and written registers vary with respect to their linguistic characteristics. Studies in register variation show that there are different registers and that they can be distinguished from each other by their so-called co-occurrence features. These constitute a set of linguistic features that commonly occur together in texts. These co-occurrence features are interpreted to establish different dimensions of variation. The linguistic differences between the registers are based on the degree of occurrence of particular linguistic features.

One such dimension is the narrative/non-narrative dimension constituted by narrative and non-narrative features:

Narrative FeaturesNon-narrative Features
Past-tense verb groupsPresent-tense verb groups
Perfect-aspect verb groupsAttributive adjectives
Public verbs (admit, say, write, explain) 
Third-person pronouns 
= Co-occurrence features= Co-occurrence features

Texts investigated in this dimension will be more or less narrative in character depending on the extent to which they use narrative or non-narrative features.

Studies in register variation focus on a few additional dimensions. These studies examine linguistic features in order to describe the nature of written and spoken registers. The figure below presents an additional dimension including involvement versus information features. As you can see, we can locate different registers on a two-dimensional scale, thus showing their degree of involvement and narrative character.

(Information taken and adapted from Finegan, 1998)


Read more on register variation:

Biber, D. (1988). Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, D. (1995). Dimensions of Register Variation: A Cross-Linguistic Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Conrad, S. and Biber, D. (2001). Variation in English: Multi-Dimensional Studies. Harlow et al.: Longman.