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English grammar in context

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What are the differences between spoken and written English? Is use of grammar more or less complex than it appears? This free course, English grammar in context, looks at the way grammar can be used as a tool for adapting our communications (both written and spoken). This OpenLearn course will help you to see how language is intertwined with both describing a view of the world and interacting with others in that world.

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • Understand the differences between spoken and written English
  • Understand the factors that influence use of grammar and vocabulary in speech and writing
  • Understand the different ways in which grammar has been described.

By: The Open University

  • Duration 15 hours
  • Updated Thursday 7th January 2016
  • Advanced level
  • Posted under Educational Practice
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3.7 Features of speech: language in real life

In our discussion of dysfluency, we specifically avoided the use of the word ‘error’. In the past, because written grammar was used to judge speech, common features of speech were judged as errors because they do not occur in the more planned environment of written text.

Thus what type of data is analysed is crucial to what the grammatical findings are. We said earlier that grammar descriptions were increasingly being developed on the basis of examining how language is really used. This is in contrast to methods which rely on introspection; that is, grammarians consider examples of the language that they use or that is published and devise ways of accounting for the word combinations they find. This method has two consequences. The first is that it is associated with a particular variety of the language, usually that used by those with higher levels of education. The second is that written rather than spoken language often forms the basis of the description. Nowadays, many authors writing grammar books or books to help learners of English are using large databases of natural language to give them insights into how language is used in real life, not just how we think it is used. We want to show you an example of a grammatical feature which would not have been evident to grammarians using just introspective methods or even those describing actual uses of language based on limited examples.

The example comes from a project investigating grammatical patterns in speech. One of the discoveries made by the project team is referred to as ‘heads and tails’. These are items that are placed at the beginning or the end of the main utterance. Example (1) illustrates ‘heads’ (in bold) and (2) exemplifies ‘tails’ (in bold).

  • 1. Paul in this job that he's got now when he goes into the office he's never quite sure where he's going to be sent.

  • 2. A: I'm going to have Mississippi Mud Pie I am.

  • B: I'm going to have profiteroles. I can't resist them I can't … just too moreish.

(McCarthy, 1998, p. 78)

I think you will agree that it is highly unlikely that such utterances would occur in writing, with the exception perhaps of dialogue in novels. However, they have been found to occur frequently in speech. They must therefore serve a communicative purpose in speech that would not be necessary in writing. It has been suggested that heads play an important role in helping the listener to prepare for what is coming next. In (1), the word Paul is used as a signal by the speaker to the listener that a new topic of conversation is being introduced. It reflects the importance of helping the listener to process incoming information in the short time span typical of face-to-face interaction. In contrast, tails are often used in evaluative contexts where they reinforce a particular point, as in B's remarks which contrast with A's. These are examples of features that are only now being discovered through analysis of authentic, naturally occurring language, particularly in association with computational analysis.

To illustrate what I mean about not basing our study on how we think we use language, look at the transcripts below from a television news programme. Earlier, in Activity 4, we contrasted speech and writing, now you are looking at two different types of speech.

Activity 8

0 hours 30 minutes

Below are two transcripts from a BBC news programme. In Text 3 you will read a short part of what the newsreader said when introducing a news item on rioting in Genoa during a summit conference of world leaders. In Text 4 you will read what a demonstrator at the conference had to say to a reporter. Read the texts and try to put in punctuation for both of them. Make a note of any differences in how the newsreader organises his speech and how the demonstrator organises his. Before you read the comment you may want to watch the video clip ‘Rioting in Genoa’ and see if you want to change your mind about the punctuation.

Click below to watch the video clip ‘Rioting in Genoa’ .

Download this video clip.

Text 3

Newsreader: Good evening dozens of people have been hurt in fighting between police and protesters outside the G8 summit of world leaders in Genoa Italian riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators after an anti-globalisation rally erupted into violence

Text 4

Man: A peaceful demonstration broke up round here you know with them mindless thugs that set fire to that bank for a start it's it's just devastating


My versions of the transcripts are as follows:

Text 3

Newsreader: Good evening. Dozens of people have been hurt in fighting between police and protesters, outside the G8 summit of world leaders in Genoa. Italian riot police fired tear gas at demonstrators after an anti-globalisation rally erupted into violence.

Text 4

Man: A peaceful demonstration broke up round here you know with them mindless thugs that set fire to that bank for a start. It's, it's just devastating.

Here we can observe yet more variation in how language is structured. The newsreader is reading from a script, so his words have been carefully worked out for him; his speech has a lot in common with written language and is therefore much easier to punctuate with conventional punctuation. The demonstrator, however, is thinking and formulating his thoughts into words almost simultaneously. We can see the result of this in the pauses, repetition, fillers such as you know and the lack of clear sentence boundaries – features you observed earlier in Activity 4 and other subsequent examples. What is interesting is that before the invention of the tape recorder, people were not consciously aware of many of these features of spoken language. In the same way, having access to lots of language data is also revealing new features of how we actually use language.

Activity 9

0 hours 40 minutes

Click below to watch the video clip ‘Face to Face’.

Download this video clip.
  • Watch the video clip ‘Face to Face’ (a split screen of a man and woman talking). This is an unscripted conversation, though obviously the participants knew they were being filmed.

    Try to write a transcript of the conversation. Look out for the features of spoken language that we have discussed in this course.


Video clip (‘face-to-face’) transcript

I have not included punctuation in this transcript. However, there are many different ways of transcribing speech. If you have included punctuation that is acceptable.

MAN but the second thing is I wondered about the characterisation of the lads whether the fact that men playing the girls was actually sharper because it was men or whether it actually missed a lot

WOMAN I'm at a disadvantage here because you know I've observed this these kids at a very much younger age I used to be a teacher and it was exactly the kind of thing that they would've done you know the girls oh the the scene in the hairdressing salon was absolutely beautiful they were all, they were all getting themselves prettified

MAN now there's the caricature with that hairdresser and the hair going 6 feet above the girls’ head

WOMAN yeah yes

MAN you know

WOMAN yes but its its not an anachronism is it I mean it wasn't a bee hive hair do it was a it was a

MAN no no

WOMAN but was it a punk either I I thought

MAN no no

WOMAN that was a little bit over the top

MAN it wasn't punk

WOMAN because he was he was doing all this kind of thing wasn't he behind her head

MAN yes but that's right there were several occasions on that when there were quite clearly where that they took something and just played it well beyond reality

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