John Larrysson Column: High-Register Synonyms

In English, and other languages, some words are more formal than others. The use of these words can indicate a difference in status between two people. It can also be misused and create offence. An example of such use is the title sanitary officers used in American English instead of garbage man. The same job in British English is dustman, which is sometimes replaced with refuse collector. These are simple examples of using a high-register word to artificially create status. These examples are harmless and even amusing. Also potentially confusing, since in the UK, sanitary officer or sanitary engineer usually means someone concerned with sewers, not dustbins. However the improper use of high-register words can cause trouble.

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There was a problem created in Hong Kong by an education department official (EDB) who used excessively formal language when talking to a school principal. Although the principal was Asian, he had been educated in England and had better English than most native speakers. The official said, “It is high time you submitted your report.” The principal instantly became angry and forgot to accommodate the more limited English of the official. He shouted at the official and asked how dare he be so rude. The term high time means that this is the latest possible time and that it is almost too late. The term would normally be used when a parent or a teacher who is scolding a naughty child. The normal English way to say the same thing is: Please submit your report soon.

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A similar incident occurred in Hong Kong when an office boy spoke to one of the foreign investors in a company and said that he wanted to inspect something instead of see it. The investor reacted by standing so close to the office boy that their toes touched and shouted at him. The synonym inspect does superficially mean the same as see. However it would only be used by someone in authority over the other. A father might inspect a child's bedroom to see if it had been cleaned. In Hong Kong, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is responsible for inspecting restaurants to see if they are clean. (The same office boy phoned the investor's wife and tried a similar approach in Cantonese, but failed so badly, that he decided that speaking to the foreign husband was safer.) The office boy had tried to use bigger words to sound more educated, but revealed himself to be less so.

In a second language it is important to speak clearly and not use more complicated higher-status words. Be careful of your exact meaning using more complicated sounding versions of simple words.

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by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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