It’s what I said, right? Y’know, spoken grammar is the thing

5th August 2016 at 01:00
The grammar of how we speak has traditionally gone underappreciated in schools, but learning its theory could provide significant benefits to teachers

I’M SURE you’ll find it interesting, y’know, this article. But it’s hard to read, isn’t it, this kind of thing? Sort of awkward. That’s because it has a different grammar, spoken English. It doesn’t, y’know, translate properly. Into writing and stuff.

One can accuse the preceding sentences of being many things. Vague and somewhat rambling, yes. But they are not ungrammatical. They are simply drawing on a different grammar: the grammar of spoken English.

“Spoken English is intrinsically grammatical,” says Mick Connell, of the National Association for the Teaching of English. “It’s different from written English. No one – with the possible exception of the former secretary of state for education Michael Gove – speaks entirely in written English.

“But what’s important is to counter the idea that spoken English doesn’t have a grammar – that it’s just anarchic.”

So different is the grammar of spoken English 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 that we produce every day. So the more teachers who can understand the different grammars of how we speak and write, the more effective the teaching of writing can be.”

Because spoken English is, by definition, more ephemeral than written English, there has been relatively little academic analysis of its grammar. But it demonstrates a number of clear traits.

Warning: implicit language

“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.

Similarly, the heads and tails of sentences are often inverted: “That house on the corner – is that where she lives?” rather than “Does she live in the house on the corner?” This helps the listener identify what you are referring to before you ask a question about it.

And, occasionally, the tail of a sentence ends up wagging on its own: “It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?” The intelligibility of this particular sentence relies on the fact that the speaker can be seen sitting in an Italian restaurant, with tomato sauce dripping down her blouse.

Spoken language is also 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’.”

The point of teaching the grammar of spoken English is not so that a new set of grammatical terms can take up their place in the queue behind fronted adverbials. It is because spoken language inevitably goes on to influence pupils’ writing.

“A child wrote ‘hashtag’ in a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk,” says Alice Edgington, deputy head St Stephen’s Infant School in Canterbury. “She was writing about Daisy the cow, and she wrote #DaisyTheCow.

“They’re ahead of us, in terms of their spoken language – they’re always adding new phrases and things. They’re always writing how they speak. You always get the odd swearword in there.”

Two forms, one language

In fact, says Debra Myhill, professor of language and literacy at the University of Exeter, there is no dividing line between written and spoken English – there is simply a continuum. This is all the more true in the era of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

“They’re complementary, written and spoken study,” she says. “A formal speech has many characteristics of writing, and an email to friends has many of the characteristics of speech. There’s a lot of influence of the spoken on the written.”

For example, children might write: “Here’s John. He really likes sugar.”

“That ‘really’ is very spoken,” says Myhill. “You probably wouldn’t want to use that in written English, unless you were deliberately looking for an informal voice.”

Understanding the grammar of spoken language can therefore provide pupils with an additional critiquing tool when analysing literature. James Read, an English teacher at Central Lancaster High School, regularly teaches his pupils that informal expressions can help to establish character and setting in narrative writing.

Read has recently been studying John Boyne’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas with his Year 7 pupils. “It’s written from the narrative perspective of a nine-year-old boy,” he says. “Kids pick up on that – they realise that the writing is true to the character of a nine-year-old boy.”

And, Myhill adds, studying real-life dialogue helps when it comes to analysing its facsimile. “Look at a novel – look at the narrative voice and look at the dialogue,” she says. “It’s a construction. Because, if you did write authentic dialogue, it would be full of gaps and repetitions, and very, very hard to read.”

For obvious reasons – comma – there can be no punctuation in spoken English. So, says Carter, we use certain words to serve the punctuation purpose instead. Formally, these are referred to as discourse markers: words such as “so”, “anyway”, “well”, or “right”.

“These are all words that help us move from one part of the conversation to the next,” he says. “‘Right: what time are you meeting your friend?’ The discourse is now moving on from one topic to another.”

Right: moving swiftly on

Mick Connell, who acknowledges that he is “a dreadful one for using ‘right’” when he teaches, suggests that these discourse markers could be used to help children learn to use written punctuation correctly.

“If a teacher was to film herself using these kinds of markers, it would be interesting to let children look at it,” he says. “To look at different markers between instruction or exposition.”

At the moment, spoken language is included only in the A-level English language syllabus; since last year, it no longer features in GCSE English courses.

But Michelle Timperley, Read’s colleague in the English department at Central Lancaster, argues that there is space for analysis of spoken language in the English curriculum.

“A lot of errors come from how children speak,” she says. For example, many write “could of” and “should of”, because they have been allowed to say it uncorrected.

“When children arrive in Reception, teachers are inheriting potentially 30 different ways of speaking and thinking. I think the most important thing you can do, as a primary teacher, is to model correct spoken English.”

But what is important, Carter insists, is that elision between written and spoken language is not censored.

“What we don’t want to do is tell children that spoken grammar is wrong,” he says. “It’s not wrong. It can’t be wrong, because everyone does it. You strengthen children’s capabilities by telling them that one is formal and one is informal, rather than telling them that one is right and one is wrong.”

And, ultimately, he believes, pupils who fully understand the difference between spoken and written English are able to make creative use of both.

“It’s all about giving teachers and children more choice,” he says. “The problem with tests is that they only give children one choice: formal written English or formal written English.”


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