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Grammar of Spoken Language

How marvelously well-formed!

When considering the construction of phrases and clauses, terms such as ‘grammatically correct’, ‘syntactically correct’ and ‘unacceptable’ are often used. These terms are typically used to identify a particular phrase or clause as either being ‘well-formed’ or ‘not well-formed’ with respect to the grammatical rules of the language. In other words, does the construction of the phrase or clause conform to the rules of (English) grammar? If it does it is considered to be ‘well-formed’. If it does not then it is considered to be ‘not well-formed’.

It is argued that native speakers of a language are able to make intuitive judgments about how well-formed a phrase or clause is. Indeed, in order to validate notions of correct and incorrect constructions, linguists often appeal to speakers’ intuitions as a means of endorsing their arguments. However, there is a danger of assuming that because an utterance is well-formed then it must necessarily be meaningful. Consider the following famous example proffered by the linguist Noam Chomsky.

colorless green ideas sleep furiously

This utterance is syntactically well-formed. In fact, it conforms to the syntactic rules of English regarding the formation of SVA clauses, i.e.

Subject Verb Adjunct
colorless green ideas sleep furiously

However, it is meaningless. The following clause, derived from the above example, as well as being meaningless is also now not well-formed.

furiously sleep ideas colorless green

The literary comparator

A second point to note is that our concept of ‘well-formed’ is influenced by the fact that we (I’m a UK citizen) live within a literate society. In other words, we tend to consider an utterance as being well-formed in relation to how we would expect it to appear in a written text. But consider the following.

did they not deal in scandal surely

This construction was uttered by a radio presenter in conversation with a studio guest. As a written text it appears somewhat cumbersome and possibly ungrammatical. However, within the context of a relatively informal face-to-face conversation it is fairly typical of the sorts of incomplete and ‘ungrammatical’ constructions people make. Consider the following extract from a conversation between two adult males.

John I think we’re going for a full fortnight
Tony or a full fortnight…yeah
John yeah
Tony cos it’s usually only a week, isn’t it?
John yeah
Tony cos it’s usually only a week, isn’t it?
John yeah
Tony cos it’s usually quite good, isn’t it?
John cos…er…last year…er…went to Salou and lost one of the lads up there…and…er…we come back…and one of the lads who I don’t know about…
Tony oh, that’s right…yeah…I remember, yeah…I remember hearing about that
John yeah
Tony yeah…bit unfortunate that
John yeah…so…
Tony yeah

Notice that this extract is full of hesitations, pauses and utterances that, according to prescriptive grammarians, would be considered ‘not well-formed’. However, this extract is typical of much of our day-to-day use of language. We must recognize, therefore, that there is a difference between the sort of grammar that may be taught in schools, and to non-native speakers learning the language as a second language, and the grammar of actual native speakers in informal settings.

The specific grammar of speech

The grammar of spoken language differs in many respects from the grammar of written language. Here are a few examples of features that frequently appear in spoken language but which are rare in written language (Carter, 2004):

  1. Heads: these appear at the beginning of clauses and orient the listener to the topic, e.g.

the big one, that’s what I’d like

your brother, he’s a footballer, isn’t he?

my dad, his friend, they went to Stockton

  1. Tails: these appear at the ends of clauses and help the speaker reinforce what he or she is saying by referring back to an earlier pronoun, e.g.

he’s really clever, Robert is

it’s really strange, like, the film

I’m playing for, I’ve got a trial for the under-tens, I have

  1. Ellipsis: The speaker omits subjects and verbs because he or she can assume that the listener knows what is being referred to, e.g.

loads of things to do tomorrow [there are…]

didn’t know you were going now [I…]

seems fine [it…, that…]

  1. Boundary markers: words or phrases such as anyway, okay, well then, used to mark the boundary between one topic or bit of business and the next in a conversation (Williamson, 1995), e.g.

okay, so we’ll go there tomorrow

oh, I didn’t realize that

anyway, I’ll let you get back to Little Britain…see you

There are several more grammatical features that appear to be peculiar to spoken language, including:

  • vague language
  • modal expressions
  • chaining of clauses

The interested reader is referred to Carter’s (2004) excellent summation.

Ongoing research such as Carter’s, using large electronic corpora of formal and informal spoken language, is revealing an astonishingly sophisticated grammar of spoken language that differs in several respects from the grammar of written language. It is therefore arguable that spoken language has its own grammar.


Carter, R. (2004) ‘Grammar and spoken English’ in Coffin, C., Hewings, A. and O’Halloran, K. (eds) Applying English Grammar: Functional and Corpus Approaches London: Arnold.

Williamson, G. (1995) Instructor-Trainee Conversation in an Adult Training Centre for People with Learning Disabilities: An Analysis of the Function and Distribution of Back Channel Tokens and Personal Names unpublished PhD thesis, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle, UK.