The grammar of spoken English is so different from that of written English that Ronald Carter, emeritus professor of modern English language at the University of Nottingham, believes that it should be taught to teachers and, potentially, to pupils as well.
“The focus has tended to be on formal, written grammar,” he says. “But spoken language counts for 95 per cent of the language we produce every day. So the more teachers can understand the different grammars of how we speak and write, the more effective the teaching of writing can be.”
Here are some of the key points of the grammar of spoken English:
“There’s a lot more ellipsis in spoken grammar...,” Carter says, proving his own point by leaving out the words “than in written grammar”. For example, if a friend were to tell you that he was going to Barcelona, you might respond: “Oh, yeah. Nice place.” In written language, you would need to say: “Barcelona is a nice place”; in spoken language, the subject of the sentence is implicit.
- Inverted heads and tails
The heads and tails of sentences are often inverted in spoken language: “That house on the corner – is that where she lives?” rather than “Does she live in that house on the corner?” This helps the listener to identify what you are referring to, before you ask a question about it.
- Wagging tails
“It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?” The intelligibility of this sentence relies on the fact that the speaker is sitting in an Italian restaurant, with tomato sauce dripping down her blouse.
Spoken language is vaguer than written language: it is full of "that kind of thing", "that sort of thing" and "stuff". “We all do it thousands of times a day,” says Carter, “often because we don’t want to go into too much detail and bore people. But in a formal exam you’d get marked down for being imprecise if you used words like ‘thing’ and ‘stuff’."
This is an edited version of a feature in the 5 August issue of TES, a grammar special issue. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. For more on spoken grammar and top grammar teaching tips for both primary and secondary teachers, the magazine is available in all good newsagents.