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7 January 2020

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




‘Heads’ (see my entry 'H is for ... heads') and ‘tails’ are features of conversational English where bits of language are placed outside the normal clause structure, either at the beginning (heads) or the end (tails).

A typical tail might look like this:

It’s a great place to go for a weekend, Brighton.

(‘Normal’ structure: Brighton’s a great place to go for a weekend.)

Here are some more examples:

He gave me a strange look, that bloke in the shop.

But it’s really hot in August, isn’t it, Greece?

It’s quite funny that, people thinking she’s famous.

It’s not always clear why people use tails. The obvious explanation is that you begin your utterance with a pronoun, and then feel you need to add the full noun, phrase or clause later, to avoid confusion.

But there are at least three things that make the picture more complex. First, there are the times when no full or new information is given in the tail, and the result is simply repetitive (or emphatic):

He’s a real joker, him.  (OR: He’s a real joker, he is.)

She drives like a maniac, she does.

It tastes a bit odd, this.

Secondly, there are the occasions when you feel the speaker may be hiding the full meaning of an utterance on purpose, until they have your attention:   

You know what? In my opinion, they actually do it deliberately, people who turn up late.

And finally, there's the issue of conversational style or preference. In the first example above, it's possible that the speaker simply has the formula 'It's a great place, X' in their lexicon, and is fond of it, perhaps because the impact word 'Brighton' comes at the end in a final flourish.    


There's a full lesson plan with materials for teaching tails (and heads) here:

Heads and tails: web page or Word doc