This is a report of a session conducted at the IATEFL conference in Harrogate in April 2006

Things you’ve always wanted to know about English grammar                                  Ron Carter and Mike McCarthy 

A session which was a real eye-opener regarding the grammar of spoken English. It was also delivered with style and humour. First-class stuff. 

Today we can build on our instincts as expert users of English because through our access to a multi-million word corpus:
Cambridge Interactional Corpus (CIC) – 1 billion words. It also includes the CANCODE spoken corpus (5 million words + 1 million spoken words) + spoken data from Noth America (8 million words) + The Learner Corpus (7 million words. 

A corpus gives us statistical information about 

  • Frequency 
  •  Differences between spoken and written grammar 
  • Context 

Some examples:
Al(though) In spoken English though is 6 times more frequent than although 

Though (170/190 = 170th most common word in Br. English and 190th most common word in US English) often appears at the end of an utterance I don’t like driving, though. Although couldn’t go there.
In spoken English we want to get our main proposition across first, then we want to hedge it, make it interactive, modalise it, etc. – at the end.
When writing, it’s not ‘online processing’ or ‘linear processing’ – you have more time. You can organize differently. 

Know (word 14/12) In speech most of its uses have no object, unlike in written English. Probably because its most common use is you know. As expert users we are aware of the needs of our listeners and we use you know to keep them with us, to check – it’s interactive. 

Just (32/24) Six times more frequent in speech than in written language.
Could you open the window? v could you just open the window?
It’s being listener sensitive here. Polite – you don’t want to bother too much. It’s a softening word. Part of a speaker-listener world, which is different from the writer-reader world. 

Other small words/chunks with big meanings 

Actually       a (little) bit       well       and things (like that) s      ort of/kind of       like
Mike McCarthy showed a transcript of spoken English absolutely full of such words. A sloppy teenager? No, it was Prince Charles!
When he’s in relaxed, natural mood he creates a speaker-listener world.

Absolutely (397/597) Not a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon word – Greco-Roman. Yet more than 4 times more frequent in spoken English. Absolutely = yes+
Is it an adverb in spoken English? Maybe we need a new term for words such as these e.g. response tokens: they operate at the level of turn-taking rather than grammar punctuation.

Lots of things look strange when written down, but we have no difficulty understanding them when spoken: His cousin in Hampshire, her boyfriend, his parents bought him a car for his birthday
We need new terminology e.g for above example - header
By the way, the person who said the above (cousin etc) was …. Yes, you’ve guessed it .. Prince Charles. 

3 little words that are changing in the way they are being used
They operate differently in a speaker-listener world, and we need new terminology for them. So (20/17)       like (28/114)       how 

So That phone is SO last week
I was SO not ready to get into trouble

I was like ‘Don’t come near me!’
And I’m like ‘Hey, what the heck’
is overwhelmingly confined to younger speakers at the moment and is used to introduce speech. 

Traditionally: How funny that was!
New form: How cool was that       How fabulous is that       How rubbish a toy is that 

And here’s a change in acceptable spoken grammar:
The are 15 members on the Security Council and there’s 5 permanent members 

So where is the dividing line between describing these changes and saying what is acceptable in spoken grammar .. and saying, well, no, surely this is not OK Mike McCarthy gave this example of one that he finds crosses the boundary (and infuriates him!). It is a recorded announcement (so is it really spoken? Alan) on Ryanair flights:
Use of laptop computers and battery-operated equipment can be used once airborne and the fasten seatbelts sign has been switched off.

Perhaps the deciding factor is: are meanings becoming muddled? Conclusion: We know a lot about grammar, but we don’t know how to talk about it when it comes to spoken grammar.

© Malta Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language