English grammar in context
English grammar in context

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3 Grammar and contextual variation

3.1 Spoken and written modes: an overview

Variations in context that can affect grammatical choice may relate to different modes of communication, such as whether it is speech or writing, telephone or email, and so on. I am communicating with you now through the written mode. I have no idea where you are or what is motivating you to look at this course. I don't know if you are alone, inside, outside, whether it is morning, afternoon or evening. To make my meanings clear to you, I type words into a computer that fit together in strings of phrases and clauses with boundaries marked by full stops and initial capital letters. I try to make what I write as clear as possible because you do not have the chance to ask me for clarification. If you were sitting with me here in my study and we were discussing grammar, most of the communication would be oral, though we might also make use of various reference books that I have on my shelves. There would be no full stops or capital letters in my speech. Instead there would be a stream of sounds, some of which would receive greater emphasis than others. The sounds would be broken up with pauses and often I would stop part way through and start to rephrase my thoughts. While we are talking I would be looking at you to make sure that you have understood what I have to say. I would be automatically monitoring your gestures, such as a nodding of the head to indicate understanding or a furrowing of the brow to indicate non-comprehension. You might interrupt and ask me to say something again or retell something in your own words to check your understanding.

In this way, the inherent difference of face-to-face communication and written communication creates different contexts which tend to lead people to communicate meanings differently through making different grammatical choices. The way I speak and write is different from the way you speak and write. However, the way I speak is probably closer to the way you speak (if you are a native speaker of English) than to the way either you or I write. Let me put that in a different way. Language varies for each individual, but it varies in systematic ways in different situations. So the language choices we make when we write will show similarities because the mode is writing and not speech.

To start you thinking about what the study of grammar can tell us about these systematic variations, let us consider the following two bits of language which come from some longer texts which you will read shortly.

  1. So she piles her in the car and they go off.
  2. Since 1840, maximum life expectancies have increased at a rate of about three months per year.

One of these is spoken and the other is written. You can probably guess that (1) is spoken and (2) is from a written text. What clues are you using to make this judgement? What choices have the speaker in (1) and the writer in (2) made that enable you to identify one as speech and the other as writing? You might say that (2) is more formal and (1) less formal. If you know some grammatical terminology, you might relate this to the long noun phrases like maximum life expectancy in (2) and the less formal ‘phrasal verbs’ such as pile in and go off in (1). In writing we often consider more carefully the words we use. We have time to plan and revise what we have to say to fit in with the meanings we want to convey and the person or people we are addressing. In speech we often do not consider our words so carefully, particularly in casual conversation. However, we are still making choices about how to express ourselves – just so quickly that we rarely have time to reflect on it. The speaker in (1) probably based her selection of informal-sounding phrasal verbs on the basis that she knew the friend she was talking to well. Or perhaps she thought that those choices would add to the contrast between the everydayness of the activities she was describing and what she was about to say next. Most of our language choices are subconscious choices, but they are nevertheless motivated. There must be a reason why you chose one word or expression and not another. One of the factors influencing this choice is whether or not we are in face-to-face contact with the person we are communicating with. While this is a major influence on variation in grammatical choices it is not the only one. There are many factors which influence our choices and this course will help you to see what some of these are.

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