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What is spoken grammar?

A definition …

Frequently-used grammatico-lexical features of conversational English that have been noticed by teachers and described by corpus researchers, but haven’t yet become part of our everyday teaching syllabuses.

… and some examples with brief explanations and clickable links to usage and further information:

1. It’s a great place to visit, Barcelona.

[Barcelona is a ‘tail’, which allows a speaker to position key information at the end of an utterance.]

2. That friend of yours, did you see her again?

[That friend of yours is a ‘head’, which allows a speaker to position key information at the beginning of an utterance.]

3. Shall we go for a walk or something?

[or something is an example of ‘vague category’ language.]

4. A: Beautiful day, isn’t it?  B: Lovely!

[This dialogue exemplifies two features: 1) ‘frontal ellipsis’ (of It’s a and Yes, it’s respectively and 2) ‘cooperative/synonymous responses’.]

5. Then she said to me, hey, where are you going?

[Hey is a discourse marker, used here to signal that a speaker is going into direct speech mode.]

6. How was the meeting? Nice and quick, I hope.

[Nice and quick are semi-fixed binomial adjectives.]

For an A-Z of spoken grammar, please click here.

For lesson plans on spoken grammar, click here.


Spoken grammar: how I got involved

A spoken grammar book for students

In 2003 we launched a new, two-week EFL speaking skills course at the University of Westminster, focusing exclusively on the language of conversation. As we explored models of spoken English with the students, I became interested in a number of grammatico-lexical features that seemed to recur. Looking these up in order to understand their form and function, I came across the term ‘spoken grammar’, coined, as far as I am aware, by the corpus grammarians Ronald Carter and Mike McCarthy.

Although there were a number of published articles on spoken grammar, and sections devoted to it in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English and the Cambridge Grammar of English, what I was looking for - and couldn’t find - was a syllabus of items that would be useful in English teaching. So I began to establish my own list, presenting my findings (and getting useful feedback) at the annual TESOL Spain conferences. For a comprehensive record of this early research, written up as a journal article for English language teachers at the University of Westminster, please click on this title: ‘Preparing to teach spoken grammar’.

By 2009, I had a working list of ‘18 items of spoken grammar’ and was fortunate enough, at TESOL Spain in Seville, to bump into Nick Boisseau (Managing Director at Delta Publishing), who suggested I put together a proposal for a book on natural spoken English. After I had invited Caroline Caygill and Rebecca Sewell (colleagues at the University of Westminster) to join me in the project, A Handbook of Spoken Grammar (aimed at learners of intermediate level and above) was published in 2011. In 2013, it was shortlisted for a British Council ELTon award in the category ‘Innovation in Learner Resources’.

An online spoken grammar course for teachers

In 2016, after further research into spoken grammar, I decided to write an entirely new course as a spoken English teaching resource, offering teachers the explanations, adaptable materials and techniques for teaching spoken grammar in their own classrooms.

Wanting to reach as many English language teachers as possible, and provide them with something that would be easily digestible at the end of a long day’s work, I chose the format of an online ELT course, covering 15 features of spoken grammar under the following five headings:

  • Word order and ellipsis
  • Emphasis
  • Vague language
  • Marking spoken discourse
  • Response language

The completed course Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers is now available on Udemy, the Californian online learning platform.

To see the promo video for the course on YouTube, please click here.

To see reviews, please click here.


Publications in spoken grammar

Spoken Grammar: A Guide for English Language Teachers (Udemy, 3rd edition 2023)

A Handbook of Spoken Grammar (Delta Publishing, 2nd edition 2020)

Articles on spoken grammar 

What is 'spoken grammar'? (ELT News magazine, March 2022; includes an A-Z of spoken grammar)

Let us teach (some) spoken grammar! (The Teacher, September 2019)

Why I published an online course for teachers on spoken grammar (The Teacher Trainer, Vol 33 No2, Summer 2019, pages 23-4)

Why I wrote 'A Handbook of Spoken Grammar' (EFL Magazine, January 2019)

Introducing your students to spoken grammar (The Teacher, Poland, 2007)

Preparing to teach spoken grammar (article written for colleagues at the University of Westminster)


Talks on spoken grammar 

Understanding and Teaching Spoken Grammar

For details of this talk for teachers’ groups, please click here.

Talks on spoken grammar previously delivered:

  • Spoken grammar: defining it and teaching it, EdYOUfest plenary, Street, 2018
  • What shall we do with spoken grammar? English UK Teachers’ Conference, London 2013
  • Teaching new items of spoken grammar, Teachers’ Conference, Kortrijk (Belgium) 2013
  • Features of spoken grammar, DiNAC, Hasselt (Belgium) 2013
  • Bringing Spoken Grammar into the Classroom, British Council, Brussels 2012
  • Aspects of Spoken Grammar, IATEFL, Harrogate 2010, Brighton 2011, Glasgow 2012.
  • Teaching Spoken Grammar, TESOL Spain, Madrid 2008, Seville 2009.
  • Designing Natural Spoken English Courses, TESOL Spain, Valencia 2003, Madrid 2004.

[Presentation + Notes + Vague language + Direct speech + Synonymous language]