Nov 1, 2011

Spoken Grammar

Sometime in March the day after the Oscar ceremony, one of my Facebook friends posted:
Mazal Tov to the King's Speech!

to which I replied:

Leo Selivan and Strangers No More - the best short documentary about Rogozin School in Tel Aviv
16 hours ago · Like

(I was rooting for the film to win since a little over a week earlier I had visited the school with a delegation from the UK). 
My comment prompted a somewhat sarky reply from another Facebooker (the name has been changed):

Sarky Facebooker I didn't realise that there an Oscar category for documentaries about the Rogozin School in Tel Aviv. Seems like a case of over-specialisation to me.
13 hours ago · Like ·  1 person

Admittedly my sentence was not very well formed and had I been writing it, say for this blog, I should have written “and Strangers No More, a documentary about the Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, which won in the Best Short Documentary category”But considering the chatty nature of Facebook posts my post doesn't seem too inchoate. After all, we don’t “write” on Facebook but rather “talk”, i.e. the Facebook language is more characteristic of spoken rather than written English. And when we speak we tend to omit and swallow words (“Hungry?” instead of “Are you hungry?”), interrupt ourselves (“I wouldn’t be upset you know – I mean it’s your choice – if you asked her out”), repeat ourselves (“My sister, she has a friend there now, he is staying with her”) and make other deviations from the norms of English grammar. Speaking is less structured and somewhat untidy.

The Facebook episode made me investigate the subject of spoken grammar in more depth. First of all, although I refer to it as “spoken grammar”, there is actually no agreement among theoreticians if it actually exists. There are three main ways of looking at the subject:

1. Spoken language has no grammar

2. Spoken grammar = written grammar

3. Spoken English has its own grammar.

The first view holds that spoken language is not governed by grammar rules - it is messy and lacking order. According to the second view, while the vocabulary we use in speaking and writing may be different (for example, more formal register in writing, more phrasal verbs in speaking etc) the same grammar rules apply to both.

Longman Grammar Spoken & Written English CasedFinally, the last view has received increased attention in the last few years with a few books published on the subject (see, for example, Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman). They have challenged the notion that grammar rules should be dictated by a written model of the language and proposed that spoken language is governed by a special grammar with its own rules and conventions

The main features of spoken grammar:

Omission of one or more words in clause.
Any luck? Instead of “Did you have any luck?”

Spoken language is produced spontaneously, in real time, and we do not have time to plan what we are going to say. This often results in repetition and additions. For example, a quantifier is often placed after its noun or pronoun:
Parisians, most of them speak some English.
Or we often add a "tail” at the end:
It’s a funny place, this town.

"Vague language is more likely to be the sign of a skilled and sensitive speaker than a lazy one" claim Carter & McCarthy (2006, p. 202)1. Some examples of vagueness in spoken English include:
 -ish, kind of / kinda, .., or something, … and things like that

Historical present
The use of present tenses to narrate past events in order to achieve a more dramatic and vivid effect.
I get to my car and then I realise that I’ve left my car keys at home so I go back home and guess what?…

Discourse markers 
Discourse markers used in Spoken English are quite different than those in written English
Well…, anyway…I mean… You know
NB. "You know" is the most frequent word combination in English
Formulaic language
Exchanges in a conversation often consist of formulaic expressions rather than full sentences.
That’s fine. What time? What about…?

How to focus in class

To practise the features of spoken grammar in class, you can do the following activities:
- arrange formulaic expressions to make a short dialogue
- look at different uses of well (e.g. to end a conversation, to introduce a story etc).
- add sort of, kind of or something like that to a dialogue to make it sound more vague
- describe a picture using stuff, things and bits and no other nouns - but as many adjectives and verbs as you can
- watch a scene from a film and note down all examples of spoken language.
Here is an example of an activity which aims to draw students’ attention to ellipsis:

Short questions in spoken language

In spoken language it’s common to leave out certain words (very often auxiliary verbs or pronouns) in general questions. Can you put back the missing words in the short dialogues below?

a)       Hungry?” “No. I’m fine thanks.”
b)       “Sleep well?” – “Yes, thanks.”
c)       You going to the party tomorrow?” “Might be”
d)       Tired? – “Yes, I’ve been working all day.”
e)       “More coffee”? –“Yes, please.”
f)        Any luck? “Nope. I’ll try again tomorrow”.

What do you think the speaker in (f) is asking about?

Click HERE to download a handout with a number of other Spoken grammar activities and exercises.

Why focus in class

Natural sounding language
By highlighting the above-mentioned features of spoken grammar we expose our students to real language, not coursebook English. This is especially important on the courses where the main input students get is through reading.

Dealing with the language that is not often found in conventional teaching materials is relevant to our students’ lives.  It is the language they hear in the movies and songs, and use when chatting on Facebook and Skype.

To counter “leveling out”
“Levelling out” is a common phenomenon in translation, referred to as one of the translation universals. Corpus studies show that translated texts tend to be more similar to one another than texts in the source language, which is particularly evident in register (level of formality). In other words, both formal and informal texts in the source language tend to lean towards the centre of the continuum in translation. A similar phenomenon can be observed amongst learners of English. They often use informal language when writing formal essays or letters and they tend to use more formal language in speaking. Since we help our learners to sound more formal in writing, I see no reason why we should not try and help make their speaking more informal, where appropriate.

Can you think of other reasons why we should focus on spoken grammar in class? Do you agree that we should spend time on it at all? I would like to hear your thoughts on the subject.


Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2006). Cambridge Grammar of English, Cambridge, CUP


  1. I believe that the only way to learn is by speaking. As grammar is an essential component of fluency and indeed making ourselves understood it must be taught. However, teaching grammar rules ad nauseum, and then asking students to complete the sentence with the correct form of the present simple or present progressive, or even the present perfect for example is of very little real value. Speak, speak, speak! - Spoken grammar is the only real way of truly learning the grammar inherent in every sentence.

  2. leo, thanks! but if i remember what you presented at the summer ETAI, wasn't there more? 2 texts, we discussed which was a native speaker and which was an EFL speaker? you projected them on the board... could i have them? (maybe the whole powerpoint ?)
    sara g

  3. Thank you for your comments, Jane. But do you actually agree that grammar of Spoken English merits our valuable classroom time?
    Two text messages you refer to, Sara, were a snapshot from a new British Council course for Secondary school teachers - I was on the team that developed it. I can't really upload it here (yet) but I can send it to you by email.

  4. Hi Leo!
    Teaching grammar to LD/ weak JH pupils can be very frustrating. We sometimes drill and drill the grammar rules (using ALL available teaching aids, multisensory approach, songs, visualizations etc…) and try to make it as simple as possible... and then they do not apply it in real life situations. The other day, after having drilled the present simple for 2 months, teaching the WH questions format, I had a quiz about that, and got this as a question in a dialogue where the reply was given ahead ("I am 14 years old")- I truly expected to get: How old are you? - Rather, I got- "How many years you are/ are you/ how years many you etc... this is where I find teaching grammar to these pupils annoying, maybe even unnecessary, to say the least.
    Hagit Lahav

  5. Hi Hagit
    Thank you for sharing your experiences of teaching grammar to kids with LD. While the purpose of this post was actually to advocate grammar teaching, but rather grammar of spoken language, I can totally understand your frustration regarding teaching "traditional" grammar rules. I think a lot of what is being taught as grammar should be introduced as chunks, such as Wh-questions: "What do you do?", "Where do you live?" and your example "How old are you?". It takes time before grammar rules become generalisable and students begin to apply them effectively so a lot of drilling (but of chunks, not rules) is inevitable. There is an article which I've written for the TeachingEnglish website which you may find of interest:

  6. I sent your articles links to all my contacts and they all adore it including me.Grammarly reviews


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