The following article appeared in the March edition of ELT News. Click here to go the ELT News website, where you can subscribe to monthly editions of this information-packed magazine: https://www.eltnews.gr/
What is ‘spoken grammar’?
There are many grammatical items that are useful in conversational English. The term ‘spoken grammar’, however, normally refers to something quite specific, which could be defined as:
Lexico-grammatical elements of conversation that have been described by corpus researchers (and noticed by teachers), but haven’t yet become part of our everyday teaching syllabuses – or where they have, deserve greater prominence because of their frequency.
Recently, I published an online course on the Udemy platform, ‘Spoken Grammar: a Guide for English Language Teachers’, where I wanted to offer teachers techniques and materials for bringing spoken grammar into their classrooms. But before I did that, I had to select a list of items from all the research currently available (see ‘References’ at the end).
Would these items be useful and teachable to your students? You decide!
An A-Z of spoken grammar:
A is for ... adjectives as response tokens
‘Response tokens’ are the little things we say – ‘okay’ or ‘yeah’, for example – to show interest in what we’ve just heard in a conversation. ‘Right’ and ‘fine’ are common, of course, but the range of single, positive adjectives that we use is also quite wide, particularly in response to good news, plans, arrangements or, in the case below, a service:
(at a conference)
A: So you’ll have ten minutes before your talk to get your stuff ready.
A: I’ll be around if there’s anything you need.
B: Fantastic. Will I need a mike?
A: Most speakers use one, yeah. I’ll have one ready.
A: I’ll see you at 10.30, then. There’s a presenters’ room on the fourth floor if you need a bit of calm before then.
B: Brilliant. Perfect. Thanks very much.
‘Double adjectives’, such as you see at the end of the dialogue, tend to be used to signal the end of a conversation, or the end of a conversational theme. Note that the second adjective will usually be equal to, or stronger than the first: ‘Good. Fantastic.’ rather than ‘Fantastic. Good.’) In the Cambridge Grammar of English (2006, page 191), Carter and McCarthy point out that this type of ‘clustering’ is common in ‘pre-closing’ and ‘closing’ routines. Also quite common are adjectives with more nuanced meanings:
A: He left after ten minutes, without saying goodbye or anything.
B: Interesting/Strange. I wonder why.
B is for ... binomial phrases
If you look up ‘binomial phrases’ in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999), you’ll find this definition: ‘two words from the same grammatical category, coordinated by ‘and’ or ‘or’. Examples include ‘fish and chips’, ‘go and get’, and ‘black and white’. What I’d like to mention here is the difference between two types of commonly-used adjective binomials: fixed pairs, and weaker pairs with a positive meaning and a little more flexibility.
‘Rich and famous’, ‘sick and tired’, and ‘bright and early’ are all fixed pairs. ‘Lovely and warm’ (to describe a room, perhaps) ‘nice and quick’ (for a journey), and ‘good and strong’ (a piece of rope, for example), are common examples of the second type. The first adjective has a gently positive effect but is otherwise almost redundant. (This is similar to verb binomials, where the second verb carries more of the lexical weight: ‘come and sit down’, ‘go and see who it is’.) ‘Nice’ and ‘lovely’ are most frequent in this position, and often interchangeable. ‘Good’ tends to be used for practical things:
– I’ll put the potatoes in if the oven’s good and hot.
In other words, the adjectives in these pairs offer a limited flexibility: someone describing a comfortable room on a cold day, for example, could say ‘lovely/nice and warm’ or ‘lovely/nice and cosy’.
C is for ... cleft structures
The word ‘cleft’ means ‘split’ or ‘divided into two’. In grammar, a cleft structure is one where information that could be given in one clause is actually given in two in order to add extra emphasis or focus to an element of the statement:
I really love the ending of the film. → It’s the ending of the film that I really love.
Cleft structures are sometimes divided into main two types, both of which are normally covered in teaching materials: ‘it’ clefts (as above) and ‘what’ clefts like these:
– What I want is a nice, hot bath.
– What we need now is a bright idea.
But there’s another type – the ‘demonstrative wh-cleft’ (where ‘wh’ refers to question words) – which is very common in conversation but often overlooked. Here’s the typical pattern:
That’s + dependent clause beginning with how/what/when/where/who/why …
Here are three examples:
A: So you like going to the market?
B: Of course. That’s where you get the cheapest vegetables.
(instead of You get the cheapest vegetables there.)
A: Is there a café near the lake?
B: No. It’s best to take a packed lunch. That’s what I do, anyway.
A: I’ve got a headache again.
B: That’s why you need to take a break.
D is for ... declarative questions
Declarative questions are statements that, because of the context and the speaker’s intonation, act like yes/no questions:
A: (arriving home) I’ve been driving around for hours, trying to find the tip.
B: You got lost? (rather than the full or ‘open’ question form, ‘Did you get lost’?)
B: But you’ve lived here all your life!
Declarative questions tend to be used when information has already been ‘shared’ between the speakers, and often express an attitude such as surprise (above) or concern (below), as well as asking for a response:
A: …and then tomorrow, we’re planning to climb Ben Nevis.
B: You’ll be careful? The weather can change in seconds.
A: Yeah. We’ve got all the gear.
Note also the words and phrases we frequently use around declarative questions: ‘so’ and ‘then’ in recognition of shared knowledge; ‘and’ and ‘but’ to emphasize an attitude such as concern; and question tags to stress a desire for confirmation:
A: I’ve just signed up for evening classes.
B: So you’re finally learning Italian, then?
A: I should be in Edinburgh by six.
B: Right. And you’ll call me when you get there?
A: I’ve got to dash now, I’m afraid.
B: OK. But we’ll see each other at the weekend, won’t we?
E is for … exaggeration
Exaggeration, or hyperbole, is such a frequent feature of conversational English that we hardly notice it’s taking place:
– I’m dying for a coffee!
Common areas for exaggeration include numbers and amounts …
– I’ve got millions of emails to answer, and mountains of paperwork.
… and time and space:
– I’ll be back in two seconds. (Exaggerating how fast you’ll be.)
– Of course you can park there. There’s acres of space!
Carter and McCarthy point out that in time exaggerations we always seem to use ‘two’ or ‘five’: two minutes, five seconds etc. (‘Hyperbole in everyday conversation,’ Journal of Pragmatics 36: 149-184)
Sometimes we use adjectives and adverbs to intensify exaggerations:
– My boss is a total slave driver.
– It was so hot in there that we were literally melting!
– We lost again. An absolute massacre, I’m afraid.
F is for … frontal ellipsis
‘Ellipsis’ means leaving words out when your meaning is clear without them:
A: (Would you like some) More tea?
B: No thanks, I’ve had enough (tea).
Ellipsis is common in conversation. It saves time and also, as the listener mentally fills in the gaps, connects what you say to the language around it. Often it would sound odd not to be elliptical:
A: Can I come into town with you?
B: Yes, if you want to come into town with me.
(instead: B: Yes, if you want to.)
But what I’d like to take a brief look at here is the type of ellipsis that is sometimes regarded as ungrammatical, but is actually a very common feature of conversation: frontal (or initial) ellipsis, affecting pronouns and auxiliary verbs.
Here are examples of the initial omission of a pronoun. Note that a form of be + a/an, or the contracted form of ‘have’ or ‘would’, may be omitted along with the pronoun:
A: (It’s a) Lovely day, isn’t it?
B: I know. (It’s a) Shame we’ve got to work. Shall we go to the park at lunchtime?
A: Sure. (That) Sounds great. But haven’t we got a section meeting at one o’clock?
B: Oh yeah. (We’d) Better leave the park for another day, then, hadn't we? Tomorrow perhaps?
A: (I) Don't think so. (It's) Going to rain all day, apparently.
Here are examples of the initial omission in questions of the auxiliary verbs ‘are’, ‘do’ and ‘have’ (sometimes including the pronoun ‘you’):
– (Do) You want to go for a walk?
– (Are) You hungry?
– (Have you) Finished your essay at last?
H is for … heads
A ‘head’ is a bit of language (normally a noun phrase) that’s been taken from its usual position in a sentence, placed at the beginning, and then represented in the second half of the sentence by a co-referential pronoun:
What are the people over there waiting for? (normal word order in a question)
The people over there (head), what are they (pronoun) waiting for?
We tend to use heads to emphasise (or ‘point at’) what is important by mentioning it first, thus separating it from the rest of the sentence, and to make complex utterances easier to process by breaking them into two parts:
Are those new jobs you’re applying for part-time or full-time?
Those new jobs you’re applying for, are they part-time or full-time?
As in the examples above, utterances with heads are often questions, but they don’t have to be:
– That tall guy, he’s looking at you.
– Jessica, you can ask her anything you like about films, and she'll know the answer.
A variation on the form – by changing the subject and using a possessive pronoun – is also quite common:
– One of my friends at college, his uncle has an apartment in Berlin.
I is for … inserts
Inserts are stand-alone words and phrases, like ‘sorry’ or ‘good night’. Here are some examples:
A: Right. Shall we get something to eat? I’m starving.
B: Okay. What sort of thing do you want?
B: Excuse me?
A: Gosh! Haven’t you heard of it?
B: Nope. Afraid not.
A: Well, it’s basically Korean pickled vegetables. Really good for you. There’s a new place round the corner that does them.
Inserts may not seem like a big deal, but they represent a key difference between spoken language and its written counterpart, which tends to be characterised by fully-formed sentences. Grammarians sometimes place inserts into categories such as the following:
1. Discourse markers (right, well etc.)
2. Expletives (damn, bloody hell etc.)
3. Greetings/farewells (hi, see you later etc.)
4. Hesitators (er, um etc.)
5. Interjections (oh, yuk etc.)
6. Polite language (sorry, excuse me etc.)
7. Response forms (yeah, uh huh etc.)
Such categories are not watertight, however: ‘oh’, for example could be an interjection, a response form or a discourse marker as the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) points out in its section on inserts.
L is for … lexical bundles
There’s a section in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (pages 990-1005 of this corpus-based grammar, first published in 1999) on what the authors call ‘lexical bundles’: strings of words frequently used together in spoken English. It’s likely that we store these bundles in our mental lexicons in ready-to-use ‘chunks’, thus facilitating the real-time ‘to and fro’ of conversation.
Three-word bundles such as ‘I don’t know’ (‘don’t’ counts here as one word) are extremely common, and five-word bundles (e.g. ‘I was going to say’) less so. But what I’d like to mention here, particularly for teaching purposes, are some four-word bundles, based around the verbs ‘think’ and ‘know’, which are often used to begin a statement: ‘utterance launchers’. What they have in common is a lack of certainty – a frequent feature of conversation – either from a social desire not to be too direct, or from a simple absence of knowledge at the moment of speaking. Here are three of these four-word utterance launchers:
1. I don’t think I/you/he/she/it/we/they…
A: So Greg and Pete have finally painted the living-room!
B: Yes, but I don’t think they’ve done it very well.
2. I was thinking of + -ing form of verb…
A: How are you getting to the conference?
B: I was thinking of taking a train. Why?
A: I thought I might drive. We could go together if you like.
3. I don’t know if/how/what/when/where/whether/which/who/why …
A: I don’t know who’s coming tonight.
B: Me neither. The usual crowd, I suppose.
M is for … marking spoken discourse
Spoken discourse markers could be described as the linguistic equivalents of the indicator lights in a car: words, phrases, and clauses that you use to signal your intentions during the journey of the conversation. Here are a just a few of them, in each case with one of the main functions, and sometimes with an example:
1. ‘Right’ to initiate a new phase of the conversation.
2. ‘Well’ to signal hesitation.
3. ‘Hey’ (and ‘I’ll tell you what’) to get attention:
(watching a football match)
A: I’ll tell you what, we won’t win unless we start taking some risks.
B: I know. It feels like we’re playing for a draw.
4. ‘Anyway’ (and ‘speaking of which’) to signal a transition in topic, or in focus:
(on the phone)
– Anyway, you can catch up tonight, because you’ll see her at the restaurant, won’t you? Speaking of which, did you book a table?
5. ‘You know’ to indicate the state of knowledge between speakers but also sometimes as a repetitive habit.
6. ‘As I was saying’ (and ‘going back to ...’) to refer to an earlier stage in the conversation:
– Going back to what you said about Ross, are you really sure he’s quitting his job?
O is for … oh
Interjections, such as ‘oh’, are inserts or stand-alone words: they have a semantic rather than a grammatical link to the rest of the utterance.
Sometimes they may not be regarded as words at all, and spellings may vary: ‘yuk’ or ‘yuck’, ‘oops’ or ‘whoops’, ‘brr’ – to show you’re cold – or ‘brrr’. But essentially, they express an immediate emotional response to a situation.
Hundreds of words can be defined as interjections but, from a frequency point of view, ‘oh’ is overwhelmingly the most commonly-used: 8,000 occurrences per million words in British English conversation, compared to less than 25 for ‘oops’ (Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus).
There are probably three reasons for its high-frequency rating:
1. The number of emotions it can express – including surprise, disappointment, understanding, anger, joy, desire, pain etc.
2. The ease with which it combines with partner words and phrases: oh dear, oh no, oh yeah, oh well, oh I see, oh really? oh look at that, oh gosh! (replace ‘gosh’ with your own swear/taboo word, as preferred!), oh that’s amazing/terrible etc.
3. The fact that it can function as an interjection, a response form, or a discourse marker (respectively in this dialogue):
A: I can’t find the tickets.
B: Oh no! The taxi will be here in a moment. When did you last see them?
A: I thought I gave them to you.
B: Oh. Are you sure? Because I haven’t got them now.
A: Oh, let’s not worry. They’ll have a record on their computer system.
P is for … placeholders
It’s not surprising that, under the pressure of time, we use a lot of ‘vague language’ (bit, like, sort of, whatever etc.) in conversation.
‘Placeholders’ are words like ‘thing’ or ‘stuff’ that you use instead of the actual or more precise words, usually because, in the middle of a conversation, you can’t remember a particular word – or you’re having difficulty defining something – but also sometimes because you don’t want to use it: it may sound pretentious, or be difficult to pronounce, or you may feel, in a relaxed conversation, that the listener doesn’t need all the details. Here are some examples, with brief explanations:
A: Are you going to that thing on Friday after work?
B: Not sure yet. Depends how I feel.
(A leaving party, perhaps, or a presentation of some sort.)
A: I saw thingy in town.
B: Who do you mean?
A: You know. Jake’s brother.
(‘Thingy’ tends to be used for people, rather than ‘thing’.)
A: Have you got that thingummy for the pizzas?
B: It’s in the cupboard above the sink if you can find it.
(Pizza cutter? ‘Thingamajig’, ‘thingummabob’ (spellings vary) and ‘doodah’ are also used. Or simply ‘thing/thingy’.)
A: Was the film any good?
B: Yeah. Whatsername was in it. The actor who was in ‘Fargo’.
(‘Whatsername’, literally ‘What’s her name? ‘Whatsisname’ is the male equivalent.)
Q is for … quantities, vague
Being ‘vague’ about quantities – using vague words/phrases and round rather than precise numbers, or a combination of both – is a distinctive feature of spoken English:
Lots of traffic on the road, roughly thirty days, about two years ago, up to three hundred miles, thousands of emails, a week or so, round about a million pounds, hundreds of jobs to do, two thousand people or thereabouts, tons of sand (in my shoes), heaps of pasta (on my plate) etc.
Just to put one figure on it, the quintessentially vague expression ‘a couple of’ occurs (in the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus) 200 times per million words in conversation but less than ten times in an equivalent amount of academic prose. In her 1994 book, ‘Vague Language’, Joanna Channell devotes three of her nine chapters to language that is used for ‘approximating quantities’, providing an in-depth analysis of this feature, with some cross-linguistic comparisons.
Rather than heap it all together, there’s an understandable tendency among linguists to categorise vague quantity language. A spoken grammar approach may be to divide it into three broad types:
1. Words that occur both in conversation and more formal English, e.g. some, many, approximately.
2. Words/phrases that tend to be restricted to conversation but are not particularly common, e.g. oodles of, umpteen:
– I’ve told you umpteen times that I’m not going.
– We’ve still got oodles of time.
3. Words/phrases that are very frequent in spoken English, e.g. a bit (of), a couple of, (a) load(s) of:
A: Where are you going? We’ve still got loads to do before people arrive.
B: Into the garden. I won’t be long. I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make. I just need a bit of peace and quiet.
In the dialogue above, ‘bit’ means ‘a small amount’, but it can sometimes be used in an understated way to suggest the opposite:
– I think we’ve got a bit of a problem here.
– We could drive there tomorrow, but it’s a bit of a journey.
R is for … reporting speech
It’s not surprising that, in the to and fro of conversation, we often want to mention the things that other people have said, introducing these reports with verbs like ‘say/ask/suggest’ or, more informally, ‘go’ or the phrase ‘be like’:
– Then Angie went, ‘Why don’t we get some something to eat now, before the show starts?’ So I asked her what she wanted, and she was like, ‘I don’t know. You decide.’ Anyway, in the end Max suggested pizzas.
As above, we often seem to mix verbatim reports with the grammatical and lexical changes that we tend to encourage learners to use. But doing the former – repeating the person’s actual words or your own, or approximating them – often adds a dramatic effect to the conversation and is rarely confusing.
Biber et al in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (220.127.116.11 Using utterance launchers to open quoted speech) note the frequency with which we use a set of marker words (including but, hey, listen, look, oh, okay, well) not only to preface verbatim reports, almost like introductory speech marks, but also to suggest an attitude (impatience, surprise etc.) in the speaker:
– She looked a bit ill so I said, hey, are you OK?
– He wanted a shower so I went, listen, we’ll miss the train if we don’t go now.
– I said, I’ll dress how I like and she goes, but it’s freezing outside!
– I told her it was my birthday and she said, oh, I’m sorry, I completely forgot.
I’ve left out the speech marks above, firstly because it emphasizes the way in which the direct speech is incorporated into the speaker’s utterance, and secondly because it’s not always clear whether the marker word was actually used by the speaker or has been added later by the reporter.
S is for … synonymous responses
There’s a tendency, often at the beginning of conversations, for people to rephrase what they’ve just heard. Why? Probably because it’s an easy way to keep the conversation going, and helps to establish rapport between the speakers. Frequent types of ‘synonymous response’ include single adjectives, sometimes with an intensifier or tag and short ‘rephrasings’ afterwards:
A: Terrible news about the library closing.
B: Awful, isn’t it? I come here all the time.
A: That was a useful presentation, wasn’t it?
B: Absolutely. Really helpful.
A: We’d better hurry, then, if we want to get there on time.
B: You’re right. We can’t hang about.
A: The problem is, she worries all the time.
B: I know. She’s always got something on her mind.
A less common feature – mentioned on page 171 of the Cambridge Grammar of English – is to make a link to what you’ve just heard by adding a dependent clause:
A: I don’t mind working on Sunday.
B: As long as they pay us extra.
A: Of course.
A: I'm going for a run.
B: Even though it's pouring?
T is for … tails
‘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 at the top, it’s possible that the speaker already has the formula ‘It's a great place, X’ in their lexicon.
V is for … vague categories
Some phrases indicate that something forms part of a category or type, e.g.:
– Shall we go for a walk or something?
Here the category probably includes other, equally possible leisure activities outside the house, such as going for a coffee or a swim, though it’s also possible that the speaker really does favour a walk but, out of consideration for the listener, doesn’t want to present that as the only option.
Other common phrases with the element ‘thing’ in them include ‘… and things/stuff (like that)’ and the more emphatic ‘and everything’.
A: Did you buy anything at the market?
B: Yeah. I got some fish, veg, potatoes and things.
A: Is Katie really going into business, then?
B: Of course. She’s rented a shop, hired staff and everything.
The archetypal vague category phrase is ‘sort/kind of’, which can range in meaning from the specific to the fairly vague:
- What sort of car have you got?
A: What does your sister do?
B: She’s a kind of doctor.
- I’m feeling sort of tired.
In the first, the listener would usually interpret ‘sort’ as ‘make’ and, in this sense, isn’t really ‘vague’. In the second, B could mean a number of things, including: ‘She’s a type of doctor but I don’t know her medical specialism.’ OR ‘She isn’t really a doctor as such, but she does do something of a medical nature.’ OR ‘She’s a doctor and I know exactly what she does, but I don’t want to sound too detailed or technical, so I’ll be a bit vague’. In the third, ‘sort of’ means ‘I can’t quite define how I’m feeling but it’s similar to tiredness.’ Or it could simply be a conversational filler.
Y is for ... 'y' as a suffix
‘-y’ and ‘-ish’ are suffixes that we can add – normally to nouns or adjectives – to express the idea of ‘approximately/similar to/in that category’, e.g.: salty, plasticky, vinegary; childish, shortish, elevenish:
– This wine is a bit vinegary, isn’t it?
– That’s him. The shortish guy with brown hair.
Words with these suffixes range from the standard items that you would find in any dictionary, such as ‘sporty’ or ‘foolish’, to vaguer - ‘bluey-pink’ or ‘slowish’ - and more creative forms:
– She's got this huge, Japanesey print of the sea in her room.
– It’s an arty, noirish kind of film.
I’m feeling a bit end-of-yearish.
What makes us choose one of these suffixes over the other? Opinions vary, but here are a few comments:
1. ‘-y’ is often used for substances, tastes, and smells: woody, tinny (‘this speaker has a tinny sound’), oily, sugary, fruity, flowery, garlicky.
2. ‘-ish’, which is more common, tends to be used for numbers, times, and dimensions:
fiftyish, nineish (‘I hope to be there by nineish/nine-ish/ninish’: spellings may vary) tallish, deepish (‘a deepish river’), steepish (‘a steepish hill’).
3. Both can be used for colours: orangey, reddish, bluey, bluish, pinky-red etc. (Is there any difference between ‘reddish-brown’ and ‘reddy-brown’? ‘Reddish’ may be vaguer; ‘reddy’ may suggest more of an even mix of the two colours.)
4. The final sound in the base word may influence the choice, particularly in more creative forms. So if something tastes a bit like strawberries, you’d describe it as ‘strawberryish’ rather than ‘strawberry-y’ (more difficult to pronounce); and if a dance looks like it originated in Spain, you might call it ‘Spanishy’ rather than ‘Spanish-ish’!
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