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Noun phrase prefaces

15 November 2019

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


Noun phrase prefaces


Actually, this piece isn’t really about noun phrase prefaces at all. I cover that feature under the title ‘H is for … heads.’ 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’ (A bit of a mouthful.) 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’? I use 'lexical bundles' in my entry 'L  is for ... lexical bundles.'

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, but have settled on ‘synonymous responses’ (which, by the way, I look at it in more detail under the entry 'S is for ... synonymous responses').

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 feature?


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