English Grammar in Conversation

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English Grammar in Conversation
Geoffrey Leech
DEPARTMENT OF LINGUISTICS AND MODERN ENGLISH LANGUAGE
LANCASTER UNIVERSITY, LANCASTER LA1 4YT, UK

A thorough description of spoken English grammar is felt to be overdue. After all, spoken language has largely been neglected by grammatical tradition; the word grammar itself descends from the classical Greek word for writing. The grammarian's bias towards the written language remains strong today, and is reflected in such terminology as 'left dislocation' and 'right dislocation' in referring to grammatical transformations. To understand these terms, we have to think of a sentence as immobile and visible on the page, like a laboratory specimen, rather than as an ongoing phenomenon of speech. Morever, discrimination in favour of the written sentence, in grammars, has to some extent been reinforced by the advent of computer corpora, simply because until very recently corpora of spoken language have not been available in sufficient quantity and coverage.

The opportunity now exists, however, for corpus linguistics to redress this balance, by taking advantage of the new availability, in the 1990s, of large and varied spoken English corpora. These include notably the spoken component of the British National Corpus, collected by Longman; the spoken component of the Bank of English corpus, collected by the Collins COBUILD team, and the CANCODE corpus, collected by Cambridge University Press. (To say that these publishers 'collected' these spoken corpora is convenient shorthand for saying that they organized, and paid for, their collection.) It is significant that all these large computer corpora of speech have been brought into existence by major British dictionary publishers: in fact, a fourth such publisher, Oxford University Press, was the lead partner of the whole British National Corpus project.

The project on which I am about to report 1 was also sponsored by a publisher: Addison Wesley Longman. It is a project leading to a large and detailed corpus-based grammar of English, to be entitled the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English

1 This paper is largely a reworking of an article 'The special grammar of conversation' to be published in the Longman Language Review, 1998 (in press).

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(LGSWE). 2 The grammar made use of a large and varied corpus (the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus) of approximately 40 million words. Within this corpus, a core corpus of some 20 million words subdivided into four 'core registers' (conversational speech, fiction writing, news writing and academic writing) formed the main focus of grammatical study and comparison. In its detailed quantitative comparison of conversation (the prototypical spoken register) with three major written registers (fiction, news and academic prose), the LGSWE is making something of a breakthrough in the comparison of spoken and written grammar. And the final chapter (Chapter 14), entitled 'The Special Grammar of Conversation' shines the spotlight strongly on the spoken corpus data (equally divided between British and American conversation) to bring out what is particularly distinctive or 'special' about spoken grammar, as contrasted in different degrees with the three written registers we also examined in detail.

To the question 'Is there a special grammar of spoken English?', any of the three following answers might be offered:
1. Spoken English has no grammar at all: it is grammatically inchoate. 2. Spoken English does not have a special grammar: its grammar is just the same as the grammar of written English
3. Spoken English does have a special grammar - it has its own principles, rules and categories, which are different from those of the written language. The first answer does not need to be taken seriously, although it is surprisingly persistent in the mind of the folk grammarian. It is inherited from the age-old tradition associating grammar with the written language, and it is...
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