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Not the same thing as writing, speaking, is it?

© Macmillan Education / Stuart CoxOne of the differences between writing and speaking is that when you’re writing, and especially when you’re writing on a computer, which of course makes it particularly simple to edit what you write as you go along, it’s quite easy to produce lengthy sentences which consist, as this one does, of a number of clauses all nicely knitted together, whereas when you’re speaking it’s much less easy, since you don’t have the opportunity to plan very far ahead or to edit what you’ve already said; you just have to press on and do the best you can.

Long stretches of conversational speech actually often consist of strings of phrases and clauses without very much linking, or even with none at all:

I went for a walk along the canal the other day, first time I’ve been there for ages, it looks so different, they’ve cut down some of the trees, that bit past the bridge, you know, all those trees, it looks so bare now, I can’t imagine why they did it …..

If there is explicit linking, it’s done mostly through the use of and, but, so, because and or; using other linking words such as however and furthermore is much less usual, and immediately has the effect of raising the level of formality.

Sometimes, in response to their changing perception of the conversational context, people break off abruptly and continue with a different structure:

We need to decide what to – Are you listening to me?

It’s common to establish, or re-establish, the topic of conversation before going on to say what you want to say about it, and there are various ways of doing this:

That painting at the top of the stairs, I got that from my grandmother.
That bloke over there, his son’s in the same class as Jake.
You know that jewellers in the shopping centre, well it’s closed down and it’s going to be a cafe.
With this assignment, how many copies to we need to submit?
About Christmas, what are we going to do?
What you were saying about the holidays, don’t you think we’d better see what my mother thinks?
I spent 90% of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted.

The last example (by ex-footballer George Best) shows how putting the topic (here: the rest) first can result in object-subject-verb word order. Putting the topic first is also a common reason for using a passive with an agent:

A: “My favourite Lennon and McCartney song is ‘Something in the way she moves’.”
B: “‘Something in the way she moves’ was written by George Harrison.”

It’s also common to reiterate the topic at the end of an utterance, either because you want to emphasise it or because you want to make sure that it’s clear who or what you’re talking about.

He never used to eat tomatoes, my dad.
It’s opening next week, that cafe I told you about.
He plays the saxophone, does Trevor.
It wasn’t bad, that coffee, was it?

These are just a few examples of how the nature of spoken English is influenced by pragmatic factors such as the need to produce language spontaneously, without the opportunity for planning ahead and editing, and the need to help yourself and your listener by signposting who or what your topic is.

More about this in a subsequent post.

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Jonathan Marks


  • Many word watchers have been aware for a few years now of how one particular piece of our oral language is changing right before our ears! The phrase “That’s a whole nother thing” can be heard in spoken language very often, yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone actually writing “A whole nother.” It’s a wonderful example of language change in action, and how the written form can lag a long way behind the spoken.

  • Jonathan: Interesting post. For further discussion of features like topic fronting, ‘utterance launchers’, tags, and other features of ‘spoken grammar’, see the big Biber et al. Grammar of Spoken and Written English, chapter 14, and especially section 14.3. They don’t cover everything though. It’s fascinating how different spoken English actually is from the written forms that are taught as ‘proper grammar’ or Standard English. In novels, there were until recently very few writers who reproduced dialogue faithfully; now this is getting to be the norm, but it’s taken a long time when you consider how long tape-recorders have been around for.

  • Jonathan: No not really. One factor is surely that the spoken language used to be thought somehow inferior to the written, and written language was the basis for grammatical description and hence prescription. In the last few decades, with the internet, social media, texting etc, people have learnt to write as they speak, and invented a whole new set of conventions for doing so. It’s partly to do with speed – the message is the important thing rather than the way it is crafted.
    This trend has raised the status of the spoken language and made it an object of study in its own right – hence LGSWE and its ilk. The representation of dialogue in novels is changing along the same lines. But I don’t want to overstate the case – there’s brilliant ‘natural’ dialogue in oldish American crime fiction – Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block etc , in The Graduate (1963) and in lots of other novels. There were always writers who had a brilliant ear for how we actually do speak, and whose dialogue both reflected this and affected it. And it’s obviously not a simple question. The development of large corpora has a lot to do with it, too.

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