English grammar in context
English grammar in context

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English grammar in context

3.2 Spoken and written modes: a comparison

As we have said, one of the most significant factors affecting our grammatical choices is whether we are speaking or writing. We can see these differences if we compare a spoken text and a written text. Text here is not being used in its usual sense to mean a piece of writing. ‘Text’ in language analysis can refer both to speech which has been prepared in a written form that can be analysed and to writing.

Activity 4

0 hours 30 minutes

Read Texts 1 and 2 below. Which do you think is spoken language and which written? Make a list of the differences between them that indicate to you that one is a written text and one is a spoken text. Don't worry about using grammatical terminology to describe things – just make notes that mean something to you.

Text 1

A friend of mine told me this amazing story the other day she a … she'd been shopping and she came back to this multi-storey car park that she's been in and it was kind of deserted … erm … and as she was walking towards her car she saw this figure sitting in the passenger seat … and she thought what's that I've been burgled and as she walked towards the car feeling a bit scared this person got out of the car and it was a little old lady… so she thought oh well probably it's not a burglar and … er … anyway she asked her and the woman said … er … apparently she'd been sitting there waiting for her daughter to arrive and the daughter hadn't turned up and she was feeling a bit giddy and faint and so she went and sat in the car … it seems a very strange thing to do … I mean … apparently she'd been trying all the door handles one was open so she sat in it … so anyway… this friend of mine … erm … said … you know … what are you going to do now … when are you meant to be meeting your daughter and the woman said half an hour ago so she said well … what are you going do now and anyway … finally this woman asked her if … er … she could possibly giver her a lift home because it was freezing and this old lady looked really ill and my friend thought oh … I'd better be nice and it was a bit out of her way but she thought she'd better do the … do the … do the right thing … so she piles her in the car and they go off … and as they're driving along she just happens to look across and sees her hands … and they weren't woman's hands at all … they were man's hands … it's got hairy big hairy hands…

(Brazil, 1995, pp. 24–5)

Text 2

Industrialized societies throughout the world are greying. Since 1840, maximum life expectancies have increased at a rate of about three months per year and this trend shows no sign of slowing down. The good news is that people are getting healthier. But one downside is the net impact on healthcare. The overall improvement in health is more than countered by the much greater number of individuals reaching ages at which age-related health problems occur. An obvious example is Alzheimer's disease, which was almost unknown a century ago. The same is true of age-related macular degeneration, now the leading cause of blindness. Ageing is bad for us and yet it happens to everyone. So why does it occur at all?

(Partridge and Gems, 2002, p. 921)

Discussion

There are many differences between these two texts that you might have noted. Let us look at just a few of them. To start with, Text 1 looks very different from language that you normally see written down and this is the first clue to the fact that it was originally spoken not written. It is a transcript, a written version of something that someone has said. This is a very simple transcript, partly because there is only one speaker and partly because of the way it has been transcribed. As you go through the course you will read lots of transcripts and will see that there are many different ways of representing spoken language on a page. In this transcription many of the features that we associate with written language are missing. There are no sentences or paragraphs, for instance. Three full stops (an ellipsis) are used to indicate gaps or pauses, not sentence endings. It is consequently difficult at first to make sense of what is said and to guess how it sounded. The speaker repeats parts of utterances, e.g. she'd better do the … do the … do the right thing and hesitates, e.g. er, erm and pauses. (The word ‘utterance’ is used in preference to ‘sentence’ because, as we shall see, the notion of a sentence does not fit neatly with describing spoken language.) The utterances often seem incomplete or to change direction as they proceed, e.g. anyway she asked her and the woman said … er … apparently she'd been sitting there waiting for her daughter to arrive, and there are changes in verb tenses, e.g. but she thought she'd better do the … do the … do the right thing …so she piles her in the car and they go off. The string of events in the story are linked predominately by and, e.g. …apparently she'd been sitting there waiting for her daughter to arrive and the daughter hadn't turned up and she was feeling a bit giddy and faint and so she went and sat in the car.

Many of the features of Text 1 are in direct contrast to Text 2 where the meanings are divided into sentences. Sentences and parts of sentences are linked together not predominately by and, but by other linking words such as but, yet and so which not only link bits of text but give us an idea of the logical unfolding of a text. One of the most significant differences between speech and writing is the amount of information that is packed into written texts in relation to the number of words used.

We can demonstrate this through looking at the following sentence from Text 2.

  • 1 The overall improvement in health is more than countered by the much greater number of individuals reaching ages at which age-related health problems occur.
  • Imagine how you might convey all that information in speech. If I were in a seminar discussing this I think I might say something like:

  • 2 There's been an improvement in health generally but at the same time this has led to problems … more people are living into old age and this is when they start to have illness and diseases that are only associated with being old.
  • But if I were talking to friends it might be more like:

  • 3 Health's getting better yeah overall … more people are living longer … but but the problem is the problem is they're not as well … they've got lots of diseases and stuff … things that you get when you're old.
  • In (2) I have used 42 words (I am counting contracted forms such as they're as one word) and in (3) 36 words to say what took 24 words in the written text. How we convey all this information in relatively few words is one of the main grammatical differences between speech and writing, especially between informal conversation and formal writing. Both formality and whether something is spoken or written can affect the choice of grammatical structures and also the choice of vocabulary. For example, the noun improvement in (1) is replaced by a verb and an adverb in (3):'s getting better. Vocabulary differences can also be seen: for example, the word individuals in (1) is replaced by people in (2) and (3).

The technical word for vocabulary is lexis, and this is combined with the word grammar in the term lexicogrammar. In this course our primary focus is on grammar, but it is important to realise that it is often the choices of both lexis and grammar, i.e. lexicogrammar, that convey the meanings we make with language.

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