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Registres de langue
The linguistic term "register" is used to categorize some aspect of language, such as a word, expression, or grammatical construction, by how formal or informal it is. Whether you realize it or not, you use a variety of registers every day – you use different words and grammar when talking to your best friend than when talking to a cashier, for example – starting right from the moment you say "hello" (or "hi" or "hey"). So knowing which register any given bit of French belongs to is vital for communicating with the appropriate amount of formality or friendliness.
French has a total of six language registers, but only the first four are considered bon usage (proper French).
I. Literary register – Niveau littéraire
Also known as niveau soutenu ("elevated register"), literary French is very formal and elegant. It’s mostly reserved for writing (literature, poetry); using it in spoken French sounds stilted, old-fashioned, or snobby.
II. Formal register – Niveau formel
The formal register refers to polite, written and spoken French. It’s used for the same reasons as the singular subject pronoun vous: to express respect, professionalism, or deference, and/or to indicate that the speaker does not know the person s/he’s speaking to. Optional liaisons and e instables are typically pronounced in formal French.
III. Normal register – Niveau courant
Normal register = everyday French. This is the default register, the largest and most common categorization. It’s neither formal nor informal, and can be used in virtually any situation without fear of giving offense. Most specialized jargons (administrative, judicial, legislative, scientific, technical, etc.) are considered normal register.
IV. Informal register – Niveau familier
Informality indicates a close relationship between friends or family members with the use of the subject pronoun tu, baby talk, etc. It’s the lowest register that is considered correct in French. Optional liaisons and e instables are typically not pronounced in informal French.
V. Familiar register – Niveau populaire
Familiar French is even more informal, reserved for very close friends or when your goal is actually to be disrespectful.
VI. Slang register – Niveau argotique
Slang moves beyond disrespectful to downright offensive: it’s crude, vulgar, and often insulting, and much of it refers to sex, drugs, weapons, or crime.
Register in practice
Nearly every facet of French varies according to register – click for details.
- Negation: formal negation | informal negation
- Pronouns: informal pronouns | neuter object pronoun
- Questions | informal questions
- Verbs: inversion | literary tenses