When Linguists talk about Register…

Students trained in traditional exegesis and historical-grammatical hermeneutics sometimes struggle when discussing interpretive practices with those trained in linguistics. The concept of register can be confusing, so my hope here is to give an analogy and then explain and illustrate some basic concepts of register as articulated by M.A.K Halliday and Ruquaiya Hasan, Stanley E. Porter, and Matthew Brooke O’Donnell.


When someone registers for an event, specific information is required by the host in order to establish a set of mutual expectations regarding the participant’s involvement. A participant provides their name, contact information, and other relevant data so that the host can be prepared for the participant’s presence and activity at the event. The more thoroughly and clearly a participant communicates their registry information, the less likely it will be that the host of the event is surprised when the participant arrives. The registration is the sum of the specific information common to the participant and the host so that each knows what to expect from the other at the event.


In the same way, register of texts is a way of gathering information provided by the author and giving it to the reader so that the reader can know what to expect from the text in view. In defining a text, Halliday and Hasan write that a text is cohesion supplemented by register (23). “A text is a passage of discourse which is coherent in these two regards: it is coherent with respect to the context of situation, and therefore consistent in register; and it is coherent with respect to itself, and therefore cohesive” (23). Register is the sum of situational features of a text (Halliday and Hasan, 22; Porter, 221). The goal of register studies to is establish expectations the reader should bring to the text. Register is to a linguist what context is to an exegete, traditionally speaking. Porter notes that register studies are a logical extension of systemic functional linguistics and infers that “One of the distinct advantages of the notion of register in discourse studies is that it provides a means by which the data of a language can be described, categorized, and then usefully analyzed in service of broader discourse notions” (219-20). Register provides the interpreter with the context of the situation and environment in which a set of utterances were made (Porter, 146, 221).


Linguists typically identify three discourse elements in a register: mode, tenor, and field (Halliday and Hasan, 22; O’Donnell, 198-99; Porter, 146-48; 219-36). I suggest analyzing these in said order. First, the mode of a text refers to the type of language involved and the text. Stated differently, mode concerns the “how” of a text. Here interpreters investigate the cohesive features of a text and how the author uses words and grammatical forms to organize the phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs of the text. These cohesive textual properties can be analyzed and quantified. It is these cohesive features that often help the reader to see the coherence of a text (O’Donnell, 427). Analyzing direct and indirect discourse, monologue, dialogue, narration, exposition, exhortation, etc. in a text constitute the mode of a text’s overall register. Additionally, studies of the mode of a text identify the text’s genre under headings like procedural, narrative, epistolary, etc. In the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10, the mode of the text is narrative with reported dialogue. References to taxes and crowds serve as cohesive features in the text.

Second, the tenor of a text is the “who,” the participants involved and the roles they play in the discourse. Studies of tenor answer questions like, Who are the main characters involved? What is the relational matrix of participants in a particular scene? Do the relationships between participants develop or change? What social groups do the participants belong to? In Luke 19:1-10, the participants include Jesus, Zacchaeus, and the crowd of onlookers. Jesus’ status as a respected teacher is contrasted with Zacchaeus status as a tax collector, one who is despised. The reaction of the crowd provides an interpretive grid for subject matter and events.

Finally, the field of a text refers to the overall situation of the discourse (Porter, 146-58). The subject matter of the text, the purposes of the participants, and the transactions of the participants involved are investigated to identify the field of a text’s register. In the story of the Zacchaeus, the field of the text’s register includes the hospitality Zacchaeus offers to Jesus and Jesus offers to Zacchaeus. Additionally, Zacchaeus’ zeal to see Jesus and the concept of cleanliness would need to be investigated under the heading of field.

Halliday, M.A.K., and Ruqaiya Hasan. Cohesion in English. New York, Longman, 1976.

O’Donnell, Matthew Brook. Corpus Linguistics & the Greek of the New Testament. New Testament Monographs 6. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2005.

Porter, Stanley E. Linguistic Analysis of the Greek New Testament: Studies in Tools, Methods, and Practice. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015.