English grammar in context
English grammar in context

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3.4 Features of speech: interaction

Once we start to consider the ongoing interactive nature of speech, many of the differences between speech and writing become explicable.

Activity 5

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Read the extract below from a conversation among three people. Using your own words, underline and describe things that indicate that this is spontaneous conversation. To get you started, here is an example from the first two lines.

A: I've got [informal everyday expression with contraction] something [general noun rather than specific] new on the computer [specific reference to a particular computer shows shared context] here [reference to specific place that is clear to those in the conversation].

B: What do you got? [questions reflect interactive style: do and got show a lack of concord (agreement) as perhaps the speaker changed his/her mind halfway through the utterance.]

A conversation

A1: I've got something new on the computer here.

B1: What do you got?

A2: If you turn it on, it turns on here and that turns on the monitor, the speakers and the uh, printer so now <unclear> shut off my printer. I just put a, a plug strip in here.

B2: oh okay.

A3: And there there's another switch inside here that allows me to turn everything off, the computer, so like when I go away I can hit that and then everything is down.

C1: The one I like is the uh, little console.

B3: Yeah.

C2: You can, well you know <unclear>

A4: Well you know the other thing is though, see I can shut this off.


Some of the points that you might have noticed were:

  • Avoiding elaborations or specification of meaning, and the use of general nouns and of pronouns e.g. something new; the other thing.

  • Interactiveness with questions: What do you got? (note the dysfluency – a term we introduce more fully later).

  • Real-time production by add-on strategy: If you turn it on, it turns on here and that turns on the monitor, the speakers and the uh, printer so now <unclear> shut off my printer.

  • Vernacular range of expressions such as contractions (I've), and informal and non-standard usage, e.g. so like when I go away; What do you got?

  • Repetition and hesitation: I just put a, a plug strip in here.

(Based on Biber, 2002b, pp. 100–101)

Many of these features can be put down to the pressures of thinking and translating our thoughts into comprehensible language in the milliseconds available during face-to-face conversation. They also rely on the sharing of immediate physical contexts and often much sociocultural context knowledge as well. They result in the range of features noted above. Easily observable in most conversations is the increased use of pronouns to refer to people and things in the vicinity or recoverable in the wider context of the conversation. Writing, in contrast, usually uses fuller combinations of nouns and adjectives to specify who or what is being referred to.

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