When speaking French, I can now express roughly 90 percent of what I can in my first language, but here's my current stumbling block.

In conversation with my French colleague, she often points out that I have an unfortunate habit of mixing words and phrases that belong to rather formal register with those in neutral or informal register.

For instance, I didn't realise that the phrase "en permanence" sounds rather formal. This is mostly because while distinctly formal and informal words are indicated as such in most dictionaries, they do not go one step further and also tag formalish words like "en permanence" as such.

At least the way I see it, "je dois tout de même reconnaître que ..." sounds slightly more formal than "je dois quand même avouer que ...", but none of these words is tagged as formalish in any dictionary, of course, with no mention of a possible subtle difference in register.

I wonder if someone is familiar with any dictionary, book, or website that helps you clearly differentiate between words that belong to different registers – especially those in formalish register.

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    Great question. I too find that register (and connotation) is one of the hardest things to detect. I was reflecting the other day on the infinite ways I know how to ask for a cup of tea in English and evaluate their nuances, but the very finite number I know in French. Similarly, a Russian native friend who's extremely well-spoken in English, having lived here for 20 years, nevertheless mixes registers on a regular basis, as well as Latinate and Germanic roots. Incidentally, perhaps the etymological base would be a good way of getting a broad sense of register in French as well?
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 3, 2017 at 16:55
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    For English, I notice that thesaurus.com offers a rudimentary "complexity" slider that seems to actually correspond to rarity. if there's something like that for French, it could at least give a broad idea. (Google makes it hard to search for these things since "nuance dictionary" is interpreted as "give me the definition of nuance"...) Otherwise, perhaps we need a Samuel Johnson of register to invent such a thing...
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 3, 2017 at 16:58
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    @redahabsinpeach Agreed — but I think the desire to know a word's register can be taken as a good thing without worrying about the use made of that knowledge. Not that I'd apply this argument to nuclear weapons. :) (But the use Alone-zee seems to have in mind, consistency rather than avoiding formal registers altogether, seems like a good one to me.)
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 3, 2017 at 17:32
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    @LukeSawczak Yes. What I wouldn't give for such a "nuance dictionary"! For instance, at least the way I see it, "je dois tout de même reconnaître que ..." sounds slightly more formal than "je dois quand même avouer que ...", but none of these words is tagged as formal in any dictionary, of course, with no mention of a possible subtle difference in register. Apr 3, 2017 at 17:39
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    @Gilles Pass the tea. Could you pass the tea? Can you pass the tea? Would you pass the tea, please? Would you be able to pass the tea? Might you be willing to ask for the tea? Pass me the tea, will you? Dude... the tea. Ma'am, might I trouble you to pass me the tea? I want the tea. I'd like the tea. Do you know, I should like some tea just now. Dearie, a good girl passes the tea when she sees that a guest is waiting. How about the tea? Would it kill you to pass the tea? Pardon me, but... [glares at tea]. I can still only reproduce — or pinpoint the nuance of — a handful of those in French!
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 3, 2017 at 19:06

2 Answers 2


I’m afraid this will also be a non-answer to your question, but it may shed some light on how opinions vary, and show how one might see green where another sees blue.

I’ll start with a very localised problem, but hopefully it illustrates a greater truth.

There is a tendency in the last 15-20 years (or even longer, some could argue) in Quebec for some members of the elite to use a register that is openly and proudly familiar, which led in some cases to unfortunate and inappropriate messages being sent ‘officially’ by politicians or spokespersons of certain organisms.

An effect of having a non-negligeable proportion of people in high social position anchoring themselves deeply into the familiar register has been to give this type of sometimes rough-edged language a truthfullness that has now eroded the trust of some people towards someone whose language is too far remote from that of the streets.

On the other hand, this has ignited a very strong response from purists, turning things into a very polarized vision of how words and messages should be spoken and communicated.

Obviously, when things are polarized, there is more often than not little room for a cold analysis of the pros and cons of each side, because the extremes are very angry and scream louder than everybody else.

So we are into the case where opinions may vary between:

  • Formal register is a sign of duplicity, and we better avoid it altogether; and...
  • Even formal register is not good enough, and one should strive to enhance even grocerie lists.

And obviously, certain words and expressions will be labelled differently by the two extreme groups: « De toute évidence » could be perfectly natural for someone, and overly precious for someone else who would never even consider using it instead of « C’est bien évident que ». Most people, the ‘silent majority’, will have mild opinions on this type of issue, but obviously, every now and again, some expression will strike any hearer as too precious and somehow artificial or clearly despicable and offensive.

My way of reacting to either of these cases is usually to laugh and ask for explanations. This way, my first opinion is not a secret, and I allow the speaker to justify the choice of words. It practically never creates any tension. True though, not everyone will react the same. It might be good to look for signs of discomfort from your audience. But ultimately, the message you’re sending should be much more powerful than the way you’re transmitting it, so unless you really try to create a reaction or to chance some lyrical poetry, people should react mostly to the content of your message, not to its container.

Also, I do not believe it is the task of a dictionary to overly fine-tune the registers to which words belong. When a dictionary calls Formal, it is only really About formal, or Most of the time formal. Writers and poets have been playing with registers and blending them with a lot of success, to emphasize, to create humour, to stylize and give a vibrant feel to a text, or to fulfill a lot of different purposes, so being picky on slight variations of language to me is overkill.

To finish this in beauty and smile, to counterweight the absence of clear answer, I’ll leave the last line to a classic example (attributed to the French Academy member Jacques de Lacretelle, thanks Laure) of a very classy and perfectly used imparfait du subjonctif with a very low, classless word to finish the sentence, proof that popular and literary tones can quite happily coexist in a single sentence.

  • Il m’eut déplu que vous m’imputassiez cette connerie.
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    « Il m'eut déplu que vous m'imputassiez cette connerie » propos attribué à l'Académicien Jacques de Lacretelle.
    – None
    Apr 15, 2017 at 18:05
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    This is a very nice treatment of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, and I mostly agree with your thoughts. (And God bless Anne-Marie Beaudoin-Bégin's sowing some truth on the battlefield of this unending war.) And it does address the context in which Alone-zee's question came up: being gently chided for using "en permanence". But the deeper question is, I think, still valid despite the differing opinions of the various elements of society. It's very useful to know the public perception of the register one's choices for a certain meaning —
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 15, 2017 at 19:07
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    — on which people mainly agree despite their different value judgements of those registers. In English, for an analogy, I generally speak as I write, which in many contexts is incongruously soutenu. Not that anyone minds, but it's good to be aware because there are times when you want to be strategic about it. For example, a few years back I was arguing with one of my brothers and said, at one point, "Consider the following." He burst out laughing. I asked why, and he said that our third brother had told him to expect this somewhat academic phrase, inhabituelle in that context, from me!
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 15, 2017 at 19:09
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    I like your method of data-gathering following one of these reactions — it gives you the tools to choose the right register (or mix of registers) for the situation, whether it's conversation with a snob, an anti-intellectual, an indifferent everyday person, a friend, or a stylistically interesting book. :) I think that the cases where it all comes out even after balancing people's opinions are rare, and that expressions can usually be classified according to their register (at least, as always, when taking into account the full range of factors: age, region, ethnic culture group, etc.!).
    – Luke Sawczak
    Apr 15, 2017 at 19:13
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    @Alone-zee To add to Frank's comment I'd say in France perception of register does not only vary in time but also in space. To illustrate my idea read my remark about putain in this answer, even if it does not exactly fall within the scope of your question. And besides variations between regions the regions of France, you will have to consider the other French speaking countries.
    – None
    Apr 16, 2017 at 9:22

My answer unfortunately won't be of much help to you, but there simply is no easy way that I know of, and I believe no dictionary or website could give you the silver bullet you are looking for.

Why? Because people already do not exactly agree about the set of words and expressions pertaining to each registers, so how would they for those on the limit between two registers?

You use "en permanence" as an example, and indeed it rings to me as kinda more formal than "tout le temps", but still, I would use it in informal settings too.

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