Author Archives: Emily Reynolds

Grammar and register



This article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.


Our last post focused on the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach to grammar. A descriptive grammar, such as the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, describes the language which people actually use, and draws from that a set of norms for usage. These norms, in turn, are used to help learners use English in a way that will, hopefully, come across as normal and natural.

While it doesn’t make judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar, a descriptive grammar does, however, still need to draw distinctions about what is typical in different contexts and what is therefore generally considered appropriate. Language which is perfectly normal in everyday conversation or in social media chat, for example, may be inappropriate or even unacceptable in an academic essay or a business report.  The idea that different types of language are typically used in different contexts is known as register.

Spoken vs written language:

Perhaps the most obvious distinction to make is between spoken and written language. As corpus linguists have begun to study the grammar of not just written texts but of spoken, conversational English as well, a number of important differences have become apparent in the way we use language when we speak and when we write. Carter and McCarthy (2015) highlight two broad differences:

  1. They explain that some of the established grammatical features found in writing need to be rethought when it comes to speaking. For example, whereas written language has clear sentences, spoken language tends to be instead structured around turns, where each turn may or may not consist of what we’d conventionally think of as a complete sentence.
  2. They point out the existence of small words or phrases in spoken language which stand on their own and function independently of grammatical structures, for example, well, anyway, fine, and great.

Consider the following dialogue between two students in a university library. What do you notice about the structure of the turns? Could any of them be considered fully-formed sentences?

A: You finished yet?shutterstock_521796607
B: Nearly.
A: Want to go and grab a coffee?
B: When I get to the end of this bit, maybe.
A: Okay, fine.
B: You go. I’ll be there in a bit.

Only the final turn here contains what we’d conventionally recognise as a fully-formed sentence. So why is this ‘looser’ approach to grammar acceptable in speech but not necessarily in writing? A lot comes down to shared understanding and context. When you’re talking to someone face-to-face, you rely a lot on the shared context (i.e. you and your listener are in the same place, at the same time, looking at the same surroundings) and your shared understanding – about each other and why you’re there. This means that there’s a lot that can remain unsaid, and this is what Carter and McCarthy (2015) term ‘situational ellipsis’. In writing, we generally have to be more explicit because we don’t share the same immediate context as our reader. That means we have to fill the ‘information gap’ between us, especially if our potential audience is unknown. We have to spell things out clearly to make sure our reader understands our message; we can’t judge by their expression whether they’ve understood or whether they look a bit puzzled, and they can’t signal understanding or ask for clarification.

Audience and purpose:

The register you choose, whether in speech or writing, also depends very much on your audience and purpose. Imagine, for example, that you witness a minor car accident in the street and you react in the following three ways.

  1. You take a picture and post it on social media with a comment.
  2. You tell your family about what happened when you get home.
  3. One of the drivers takes your contact details and some time later you receive a letter from her insurance company asking you to write a report of what you saw.


In each of the three situations, how might your language differ in terms of …
– the amount of detail you include?
– vocabulary?
– grammar?

Which of the following examples do you think might be used in each context? Which grammatical features give you a clue?

At 8.30 on the morning of 25 January 2017, I was walking along Clifton Road.
Nasty smash on Clifton Rd … no one hurt, but road blocked & loads of traffic backing up.
The guy was going way too fast, he was never going to stop.
The black vehicle may have been travelling above the speed limit.

The very careful, formalized order of the time adverbials in the first example signals a (semi)legal register. This is how police reports typically describe the time of events and it’s a form that lay people who find themselves in a legal context, such as writing a statement to an insurance company, tend to adopt. As well as it just being ‘the norm’, we use this type of language because we understand the need to be clear and accurate, and to provide as much detail as possible in this particular context; we recognize the purpose of the communication as well as the audience.

In the second and third examples, we see instances of slightly more informal grammatical forms – loads of … and way too + qualitative adjective – which are typical of speech or informal writing, such as on social media. Whereas in the final example, the use of may have to express possibility is a slightly more formal choice than might have or could have. Collins COBUILD English Grammar includes many more examples of grammatical features typically used more in formal or informal registers.

Specialized registers:

As well as the broad register categories of spoken and written or formal and informal, certain features are typical of a more specialized register. We’ve already seen an example of a legal register; some other features most usually found in specialized contexts include:

  • Literary: Her pale face grew paler yet. (yet after a comparative adjective)
  • Old-fashioned or very formal: It is my decision, is it not? (an uncontracted negative tag)
  • Technical: non-ferrous metals such as copper, lead and aluminium (a normally uncountable (mass) noun being used in the plural form to refer to different types of a substance)
  • Academic: a clear demonstration of the brain mechanisms at work (a long noun phrase) 

What happens if you break the rules?

Throughout this post, I’ve been using lots of hedging language – typically, usually, tend to – because I’ve been describing tendencies rather than hard-and-fast rules. Of course, speakers break them all time. But what happens when we get a mismatch in register? The text below is from a television advert (for It’s delivered by a primary school teacher addressing a group of five-year-olds:

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

The effect here is humorous because the use of typically legal language sticks out as marked in the context. This is fine if you’re aiming for humour, but less good if you’re a learner who inadvertently uses linguistic features that don’t match the communicative context. In the classroom, we tend to mention register in relation to vocabulary (children vs. kids, thank you vs. cheers), but if we’re going to help our students avoid embarrassing faux pas, then it’s something to bring up in relation to grammar too.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2015) ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?’ Applied Linguistics

Prescriptive vs descriptive approaches to grammar




This article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

In our first blogpost about the new Collins COBUILD English Grammar, we saw how a functional grammar is all about language use:

It’s about communicative grammar that learners can use in the typical situations that they find themselves in as they go about their daily lives. Moreover, it’s an approach in which grammar is not seen as a set of rules, but rather as a communicative resource.

Until the later part of the 20th century, most students and teachers would have expected a grammar book to contain rules for good style. For example, a grammarian might have explained that you should ‘never end a sentence with a preposition’ or that starting a sentence with a conjunction like ‘And’ or ‘But’ is a big no-no. This type of reference, which tells you how to speak so-called ‘correct’ English, can be referred to as a prescriptive grammar.

The Collins COBUILD range is the result of a project that began in the 1980s, when Collins Publishers formed a partnership with researchers at the University of Birmingham, headed by John Sinclair (1933-2007), to develop an electronic corpus of written and spoken English. The aim was to provide authentic examples for Collins’ new learner dictionary. When the first Collins COBUILD Dictionary of English was published in 1987, it revolutionized dictionaries for learners, leading to a new generation of corpus-driven reference materials for English language learners. A grammar book like Collins COBUILD English Grammar, which describes the language as it is actually used, can be referred to as a descriptive grammar.

So, to summarize, a prescriptive grammar serves to impose its own vision of ‘correct’ language use, and a descriptive grammar observes how language is used and passes this information on to readers.

In his blog, ‘An A-Z of ELT’, Scott Thornbury (2011) describes how some trainee teachers ‘come to associate all rules with prescriptivism’ because all statements about how language works seem to be telling students how they should speak or write. So what is the difference between a grammar rule such as ‘don’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence’ and one that says ‘always add an -s to the end of a 3rd person singular verb in the present simple’? Thornbury explains this by distinguishing two types of rules: ‘rules-as-regulations’ and ‘rules-as-regularities’. The former describes rules that attempt to regulate our language use, while the latter describes observations about what regularly occurs in the language. There is always going to be some overlap, of course, but COBUILD is more concerned with regularities.

Let’s look at what this means in terms of Collins COBUILD English Grammar itself.


All the examples in Collins COBUILD English Grammar are taken directly from the Collins Corpus (with only minor changes made to cut out any distracting ‘noise’). The corpus is regularly updated with new material taken from everyday speech and writing. This allows us to give clear illustrations of how people really speak and write, rather than telling students how we think they should express themselves. For example, we all know that stative verbs (e.g. want, feel, see, hear, love) are not usually used with progressive forms (apart from in informal I’m lovin’ it-type phrases). However, examples from the Collins Corpus show that in certain cases it is perfectly normal, even in formal situations, to use them with perfect forms:

I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
Then she heard it – the sound she’d been hearing in her head for weeks.

Similarly, who hasn’t taught or learnt the rule that the determiner much is used in negatives and question forms, and is not generally found in affirmative statements? While this rule is perfectly legitimate and serviceable, our corpus data shows us certain cases in which much can be used in affirmative statements. This usage is most common with abstract nouns, particularly those relating to discussion, debate, and research.

The subject is generating much debate among political and business analysts.
After much discussion, they decided to take the coin to a jeweller.

Regular analysis of corpus data and a perpetual ear to the ground mean that pedagogical grammarians at COBUILD don’t allow themselves to be complacent. That would be the way for rules to become ‘rules-as-regulations’ (i.e. prescriptive) rather than ‘rules-as-regularities’ (i.e. descriptive).

Pet peeves

Let’s now look at how Collins COBUILD English Grammar deals with some of the ‘old chestnuts’ of English grammar – those prescriptive rules that came about because some people thought English should emulate Latin, or ones that originated as the ‘pet peeve of a self-anointed maven’ (Pinker 2014).

‘Never begin a sentence with a conjunction’
As Allison Vannest (2016) writes in her blogpost on, ‘The prohibition against opening a sentence with a conjunction is one of the most persistent grammar myths of all time.’ She adds that the Chicago Manual of Style estimates (perhaps rather wildly) that ‘as many as 10 percent of the finest sentences ever written began with a conjunction.’

In the section on coordinating conjunctions, Collins COBUILD English Grammar notes:

In writing, you can sometimes begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. You do this to make the sentence seem more dramatic or forceful. Some people think this use is incorrect.

Why do learners need to know that some people think this is incorrect? Well, it’s all about knowing your audience, getting a feel for how conservative they are, and acting accordingly. If learners want to be absolutely sure that they won’t be marked down by an ‘old-school’ teacher or examiner, they might want to avoid starting a sentence with a conjunction. It’s up to them.

‘Never split an infinitive’
This rule dates back to an era when Latin was seen as the model to follow. Many people still try to avoid splitting infinitives because prescriptive grammar books and well-meaning teachers prescribed this as a rigid rule that should never be broken. However, as Collins COBUILD English Grammar observes:

Sometimes, if you avoid putting the adverb between the to and the infinitive, you change the emphasis of the sentence, or it can sound clumsy. In such cases, splitting the infinitive, as it is called, is now generally considered acceptable.
I want you to really enjoy yourself.

Note the caveat that a small number of people may not tolerate a split infinitive. Again, this is important advice for students who are taking exams or who know that their audience subscribes to a more traditional approach to English usage.

As we can see, then, through careful monitoring of corpus data, old rules-as-regulations start to become anachronisms and new rules-as-regularities are established. Keeping up to date by reading and listening, always with a critical ear, is vital for teachers and learners.

And, of course, for expert help in doing so, always be sure to have access to a good descriptive grammar.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

Pinker, S. (2014) 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes):
Thornbury, S. (2011) P is for prescriptive:
Vannest, A. (2016) Remember when? 6 grammar rules from the past: