The Grammar of Speech

As a supplement to my post yesterday, it might be of some interest to mention that Ronald Carter (‘Grammar and Spoken English’ in ‘Applying English Grammar’) has listed some of the ways in which the grammar of spoken English differs from the grammar of written English. They include:

‘Heads’ and ‘tails’. Heads ‘occur at the beginning of clauses and help listeners orient to a topic’:

The white house on the corner, is that where she lives?

That girl, Jill, her sister, she works in our office.

Tails ‘occur at the end of clauses, normally echoing an antecedent pronoun and help to reinforce what we are saying’:

She’s a very good swimmer, Jenny is.

It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?

Ellipsis ‘in which subjects and verbs are omitted because we can assume our listeners know what we mean’.

Discourse markers. Anyway, right, okay, I see, I mean, mind you, well, right, what’s more, so, now.

Vague language. Words and phrases such as thing, stuff, or so, or something, or anything, or whatever, sort of.

Deixis. ‘The “orientational” features of language and includes words and phrases which point to particular features of a situation.’

Modal expressions. Modal verbs, but also words and phrases such as: possibly, probably, I don’t know, I don’t think, I think, I suppose, perhaps.

Carter quotes this piece of speech from ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

Sure we got there um at seven actually around six fifteen and class starts at seven and I went up in this building that was about five or six stories high and I was the only one there and I was the only one there I was. And I yeah I was thinking gosh you know is this the right place or may be everyone’s inside waiting for me to come in there’s nothing said you know come on in knock on the door and come in or anything like that.

That is very different from what we’d expect to find in a piece of formal writing, but isn’t it still Standard English?


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Spoken English, Standard English

4 responses to “The Grammar of Speech

  1. It is entirely Standard English. If we remove phatic expressions, repetitions, and dysfluencies, and add some punctuation, we get this:

    Sure. We got there at 7:00 — actually around 6:15; class starts at 7:00. I went up in this building that was about five or six stories high. I was the only one there, and I was thinking “Is this the right place?” Or maybe everyone’s inside waiting for me to come in — there’s nothing said: “Come on in”, “Knock on the door and come in”, or anything like that.

    The only further edits that I would make to change this to standard informal written prose (like what I’m writing here) are to change “in” to “into” in the second sentence, replace the colon in the last sentence with “like”, and add another “or” between the two versions of “Come on in”.


  2. richard Leinaweaver

    So essentially, names are being given to each new oral development, peculiarity, pop phrase of this summer, under the rubric of grammar. But spoken language change so rapidly and occasionally chaotically that new “rules” will almost die a’borning.


    • Words and phrases, it is true, Richard, come and go, but the underlying grammar of English, when it changes at all, normally changes very slowly, with two rival constructions existing side by side until one drops out of use. As for rules more generally, some 500 years ago John Colet wrote of Latin:

      ‘In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.’

      We can readily substitute English, or indeed any other living language, for Latin.


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