The language of Spoken Discourse:
• we tend to speak in short stretches.
• Theses stretches may be, but frequently are not,
accurate or complete sentences.
• The word utterance is used to describe these
stretches of spoken language.
• Many utterances are comprised of incomplete,
• In conversation when segments are linked
together co-ordinating devices tend to be used.
• Conventional word SVO order is generally used.
But especially when speakers want to stress a
contrast, they frequently resort to fronting, i.e.,
putting the object in front of the verb:
This one I can use; that one I’ve got no use for.
• A very frequent form of fronting in spoken
English (but rare in written English) is topic
• This consists of placing a noun phrase or a noun
clause in from of the grammatical subject, both
of which actually refer to the same thing:
That part there ’s the handle
Because we speak in real time, we often save
time by using ellipsis: the omission of
grammatical (function) words, but also of
Ellipsis and Deixis
• Lexical ellipsis often is associated with Deixis. When words
or pronouns refer to something beyond the language of the
text, i.e., they indicate things in the context they are
described as deictic.
• Deixis, can take the form of:
person deixis, place deixis, time deixis.
• Because deixis allows speakers to quickly refer to things
that are clear from the context, it often allows them to
avoid naming things explicitly, e.g.,
‘him’ instead of a name
‘then’ instead of a time
‘these’ instead of the name of things.
• Deixis is important in conversation because it is
frequently used to orient the conversation
(guide someone physically in a specified
• Topic fronting is a common way of orienting the
listener, because it makes double sure the
listener is clear about what is being talked about
before pursuing the conversation further:
‘That bit there’
Task 1 look at the conversation on P60:
a. Identify examples of ungrammatical utterances;
b. Identify examples of co-ordination;
c. Identify examples of topic fronting;
d. Identify examples of grammatical ellipsis;
e. Identify examples of lexical ellipsis;
f. Identify examples of deixis used to orient the
g. Identify examples of vague language;
h. Identify examples of linguistic inventiveness.
Lexis and Lexicalisation
The lexis of conversation in English tends to feature
simple Anglos-Saxon words rather than words of Latin
origin. In LSW the example is start rather than
This tendency is also related to formality and issues of
Carter and Cornbleet stress how we tend to use core
vocabulary , central words in a language, rather than
choosing lexis from the extreme ends of the language
However, it is a generalisation. Lexis depends on the
conversation event, the participants and the context.
Lexical density of speech
As a rule, spoken English has a lower lexical
density that written English.
This means that grammar or function words
tend to be much more frequent, particularly
in the form of verb phrases which occur more
frequently than noun phrases.
Many verb phrases are based on and built around
the most common verbs in the language:
• ‘go’, ‘have’, ‘put’, ‘do’, etc.
• They often combine with nouns to make
common phrases – ‘have a look’, ‘go for a walk’,
‘do the washing up’, etc. Such verbs are known as
delexical verbs and they are more common in
informal conversation and spoken discourse than
their lexical equivalents from which they are
formed– in this case, ‘look’, walk’, ‘wash up’, etc.,
Look back to the conversation on p.60.
compare the use of delexical verbs with the
number, if any, of lexical verbs, i.e. verbs with
Most face-to-face conversations feature
shared knowledge of things in the context.
This is why we tend to use vague, general
words rather than specific terminology, which
would require greater effort and might also
introduce an inappropriate register, if the
conversation is an informal one. Words like
‘something’ are often used in vague
expressions like ‘or something’.
The example of lexical creativity is the word
‘unsolid’. This word does not exist in the
dictionary and it is not officially recognised as a
word. Yet it works in this context.
This is partly because the root word ‘solid’ is
preceded by the negative prefix ‘un’, which
prefixes many adjectives in English to create
negative meanings. The other participants are
familiar with this principal of word formation ,so
the meaning is clear
Interaction signals: back-channels
Back-channels are signs that we’re interested, that
we’re paying attention and in agreement with what is
They do not normally interrupt a turn or signal a
change of turn. In English the words (or voiced fillers)
most frequently used as back channels are: ‘yeah’,
‘right’, ‘OK’, ‘mmm’
‘oh’ and ‘ah’ also convey emotional involvement in
what is being said.
In the absence of these signs speakers are likely to
infer boredom, lack of sympathy, or perhaps even
antagonism on the part of the listener.
To indicate that a turn has ended or is about
to begin speakers use another set of signals –
these are Discourse Markers: words and
phrases which are used to signal the
relationships and connections between
They are used to help the listener (or reader)
follow what is being said.
• Tag Questions are almost exclusive to spoken discourse
and fulfil a function very similar to that of discourse
They may indicate regular questions to which an answer
would be expected, but they also have functions like
seeking confirmation, encouraging someone to speak or
contribute to a conversation, in other words, ‘drawing
They are also used to express a range of emotions and
attitudes, horror, surprise or disbelief, conviction, etc.
Written tag questions can be difficult to interpret, because
their function in discourse is connected to intonation.
1: it signals the start of the conversation so it operates as an opener,
telling the listener that this is the beginning.
2: it seems to be used to contradict a previous utterance.
So: ‘Well’ can also be used to indicate reluctance to give a clear
negative after a closed question. So, it can be used to signal and
opening, or modification of a challenging opinion.
1: prepares the hearer for a surprising or just remembered idea.
2: Here it also seems to indicate an attitude of enthusiasm to
introduce the new topic
Consider the use of ‘and’ and ‘but’ and how they ‘signpost the structure of the
1: it signals a new idea, joining separate ideas in a list (as in this conversation)
(It can join idea or events in a temporal sequence with the meaning of ‘and then’.
It can be used causally: ‘He saw his wife and ran away’)
1. in this conversations it seems to modify or contradict what has gone on before. In
the utterance ‘she doesn’t dislike (.) but they’ve never really clicked’, though the
speaker wants to maintain that Caroline doesn’t like Jane, ‘but’ indicates that she
wants to modify that previous utterance in some way.
2. The second ‘but’ , coming after ‘they’ve never really clicked is to indicate that,
though, not really having clicked may sound like they have an incompatible
relationship, this is not too difficult to deal with, because Caroline only has to
work for Jane three days a week. (so its concessive rather than adversative)