Vance uses the psychological term “learned helplessness” to describe the resignation of his peers, many of whom have given up on the idea of upward mobility in a region that they see as permanently left behind. Writing in a higher register, he says that there is something “almost spiritual about the cynicism” in his home town. (source: The New Yorker, The Lives of Poor White People)

What's the meaning of 'higher register' here?


2 Answers 2


Register refers to the style of the language you use, higher register means more formal, more elaborated language.

  • (language) the style of language, grammar, and words used for particular situations: People chatting at a party will usually be talking in (an) informal register.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

  • In linguistics, register is one of the many styles or varieties of language determined by such factors as social occasion, purpose, and audience. Also called stylistic variation.

  • More generally, register is used to indicate degrees of formality in language use. The different registers or language styles that we use are sometimes called codes.


  • 1
    I wonder whether, in the example given, the reviewer is using a different meaning of register. A vocalist has a number of different registers available, including for example a very high "falsetto". Some registers can be quite shrill or piercing, some can seem exaggerated. I think that the reviewer is being critical of the rather florid style, implying that "spiritual cynicism" is rather like an exaggerated singing tone.
    – djna
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 6:44
  • @djna - it says "writing" in higher register..I don't see any reference to voice register in the extract.
    – user5267
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 6:48
  • allow for a little poetry: writers have a "voice"
    – djna
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 8:42
  • 1
    @djna Register, with both writers and vocalists, is a metaphor drawn from the construction of pipe organs, which have multiple banks of pipes of different shapes: the 'register' is the mechanical device which activates a specific bank by allowing air to flow to it. See this. Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 10:51
  • @StoneyB - thanks, I should have recognised that, my son is an organist ;-) I'd be intrigued to know what the original reviewer had in mind here.
    – djna
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 11:16

"Higher register" means more formal, less everyday language. It's a term you see used often among writers to talk about the tone or diction an author, narrator, or character uses. (I'm also a musician, "register" is obviously used there, too, but I'm not sure if the idea of register in writing was borrowed from the musical lexicon.) Without reading the Vance itself, I'm not sure if the reviewer might have been more accurate to say he was getting more philosophical at that moment, rather than really changing to a different level of diction.

  • Hi, welcome to ELL Stack Exchange! Thanks for the answer.
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 1:29

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