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Grammar rules

22 October 2019

Spoken grammar: lexico-grammatical features of conversation highlighted in corpus research.


Grammar rules


Speech is sometimes regarded as a careless version of writing. This is because the rules of grammar tend to be dictated by the norms of standard written English. You could therefore argue, I suppose, that conversational English, under the pressure of time, often ‘breaks’ these rules with its verb-less sentences, repetitions, chaotic syntax etc.


But you could look at it another way. You could say that speech came first, that whatever it does to achieve its communicative aims is fine, and that standard written language, with its rules and regulations, is simply a useful, tidied-up variety of speech.


What I’d like to focus on here, however, are not the obvious grammatical ‘mistakes’ we make as we negotiate real-time conversation, but a few of the ways in which spoken English has its own grammar, which is sometimes borrowed by the kind of written English (journalism or advertising, for example) that wants to make itself punchier or more accessible.

Here are six examples:

1. Heads (changing the normal word order of a statement or question by placing the significant element, usually a noun phrase, at the front) as in: ‘That new French restaurant on Park Street, does it look any good?’

2. Tails (typically, expanding a pronoun into a noun phrase at the end of an utterance) as in: ‘It’s a great place for a weekend break, Brighton.’

3. Declarative questions (statements that become questions through context and intonation rather than a change of word order or the use of ‘Do/Did …?’) as in: ‘So I hear you’re getting married?’

4. Ellipsis (leaving words out) as in: ‘You ready to go’?

5. Inserts (Words and phrases that stand outside the clausal structure such as ‘yeah’, ‘oh’, ‘uh huh’, ‘er’, ‘gosh’, ‘thank you’ etc.) as in: ‘Gosh! Did you really make that yourself?’

6. Use of direct speech (incorporating direct speech into your conversation without changing tenses or pronouns, but sometimes letting marker words like ‘listen’ or ‘oh’ introduce the original statement) as in: ‘I told her it was my birthday and she said, oh, I’m sorry, I completely forgot.’ (Some teaching exercises still seem to require students to translate utterances like this into: ‘I told her it was my birthday and she apologised, saying that she had completetly forgotten.')



To find out about teaching spoken grammar, you are welcome to visit my online course, Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers.