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An A to Z of spoken grammar: N

15 November 2019

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


N is for … noun phrase prefaces


Actually, this piece isn’t really about noun phrase prefaces at all. I covered that feature on 25 October 2019 under the title ‘H is for … heads’ (click here). It’s about terminology.

One of the interesting things about an evolving area of language like spoken grammar is that the terminology isn’t as fixed as it is for more traditional items such as relative clauses or passives.

In the 1960s, Michael Halliday described ‘heads’ as ‘left-dislocations’, because the significant element is shifted to the left or beginning of the utterance. In the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999), Biber et al call them ‘noun phrase prefaces’. Carter and McCarthy, on the other hand, use the term ‘headers’ in the Cambridge Grammar of English of 2006.

Similarly, is it ‘lexical bundles’ (Biber et al) or ‘lexical phrases’ or ‘chunks’ or ‘clusters’ or ‘word strings’? (Click here for my piece on the topic.)

One feature of spoken grammar that is still looking for a name, as far as I’m aware, is the tendency we have (as evidenced in the CANCODE corpus) to repeat in different words what a speaker has just said, particularly at the very beginning of conversations:

A: Lovely today, isn’t it?

B: Beautiful!


A: Busy here today, isn’t it?

B: Yes, there’s quite a crowd.


I’ve referred to this feature in various ways in conference talks, most recently as ‘synonymous responses’ (which, by the way, I’ll look at it in more detail on 3 December 2019).

McCarthy and Carter, in a similar vein, mention, on page 171 of the Cambridge Grammar of English, the way in which speakers sometimes add a subordinate clause to someone else’s utterance, or, later in the conversation, to their own:

A: We’re going to be late.

B: Unless we get a cab.


A: In the end, she told me to shut up.

B: Really?

A: Which is fair enough, I suppose. I had been going on a bit.


Any offers on a name for this?


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


(O is for … ‘oh’: 19 November 2019)         To catch up with A-M, click here.