Category Archives: Reviews

Grammar and register

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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.

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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 totaljobs.com). 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.


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

Collins COBUILD English Grammar: a functional grammar

 

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

 

Most people who study and use a language are interested in how they can do things with the language – how they can express their feelings and wishes, get attention, influence people, and learn about the world. They are interested in the grammatical structure of the language as a way of getting things done.

 

What is a functional grammar?

A grammar that puts together the patterns of the language and the things you can do with them is called a functional grammar; that is, it is based on the relation between the structure of a language and the various functions that the language performs.

If you’ve done any reading around different ways of describing the grammar of a language, you will, no doubt, have come across Halliday’s An Introduction to Functional Grammar, now in its fourth edition, but originally published in 1985. (He’s still going strong, by the way, aged 91.)

In many ways, Halliday’s functional grammar seems to be very well suited to language teaching and learning. 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.

As Halliday himself says, ‘A functional grammar is essentially a “natural” grammar, in the sense that everything in it can be explained, ultimately, by reference to how language is used.’ (Halliday, 1994, p. xiii).

Anyone who has read Halliday’s seminal work will know that his ‘systemic functional grammar’ is a broad and very rich description of the systems and uses of English grammar – to the point that it is considered by some as being rather too broad and too rich for teaching and learning.

 

Where does COBUILD come in?

This is where Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017) takes up the reins. It has taken the essence of Halliday’s theories and repackaged them so that teachers and learners can get the most benefit from the functional approach. In Collins COBUILD English Grammar, sections are built around functions of language, such as ‘describing people and things’, ‘expressing time’, and ‘reporting what people say and think’. Each of these functions is regularly expressed in English by a particular structure. For example, to describe people and things, we usually use adjectives. Similarly, reporting what people say or think typically involves a reporting verb such as say, followed by a clause beginning with that or a clause with quotation marks around it.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar follows up each major statement (often called a ‘rule’ in other grammars) with a detailed description of the uses surrounding it. The scope of the original function may then be extended. For example, the basic, central function of reporting verbs (Chapter 7) is to state what someone has said, for example:

  • He said he would be back soon.

This can easily be extended to include what someone has written, as in:

  • His mother wrote that he had finally arrived home.

Then it can be widened to include thoughts and feelings:

  • The boys thought he was dead.

From this, we can see that the reporting clause is simply a way of introducing another clause.

Similarly, instead of opting for a traditional treatment of tenses, Collins COBUILD English Grammar concerns itself with ‘expressing time’. This allows for a far more intuitive description of the various functions of different verb forms than any traditional grammar is able to provide. For example, under ‘Expressing future time’, there are sections entitled ‘indicating certainty’, ‘indicating duration’, and ‘planned events’. Structures with will are demonstrated according to function alongside more lexical realizations of future concepts such as be due to, be about to, and be going to:

Certainty:

Don’t worry; Nancy will arrange it.

Duration:

By the end of this week, I will have been working here for exactly a year.

Intention:

Thanks for the offer but Ian is going to take me.

Planned event:

The work is due to start this summer.

Happening soon:

About 385 people are about to lose their jobs.

 

The grammar of social and cultural contexts

A functional grammar is also concerned with how language is used in a range of social and cultural contexts. Collins COBUILD English Grammar adheres to this approach in a variety of ways. For example, the section on plural forms of you explains that you guys and you lot are more frequent in informal English. Similarly, in the section on using generic they and their to refer back to indefinite pronouns (e.g. Someone’s forgotten their coat), readers learn that:

In more formal English, some people prefer to use he, him, his, or himself to refer back to an indefinite pronoun, but many people dislike this use because it suggests that the person being referred to is male:

Everyone has his dream.

And in the section relating to determiners:

In informal spoken English, people sometimes use this and these in front of nouns, even when they are mentioning someone or something for the first time:

At school we had to wear these awful white hats.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar further embraces the concept that grammar is closely related to the situation in which it occurs by focusing on two main contexts in which English is used as a lingua franca throughout the world – business and academic English. Two supplementary sections identify the principal areas of grammar that learners need to master if they wish to communicate effectively in business and academic contexts.

The section on the grammar of business English looks at typical structures used in such contexts as sharing information, negotiating, and giving presentations. The academic English section covers such areas as explaining results, reviewing research, and reporting findings. Extensive cross-referencing allows the user to refer back to the main text, where structures are discussed in greater detail.

 

The grammar of discourse

Finally, functional grammar is concerned with how the various items of language in a text work together as part of a larger system. Collins COBUILD English Grammar goes beyond a focus on ‘well-formed sentences’ to help students use language effectively in a range of discourse contexts. Chapter 10, entitled ‘Making a text hold together’, describes how ‘referring back’ and ‘referring forward’ can create cohesion in a text, and how sentences and different parts of a conversation are linked together. What is not said is considered to be just as important as what is said, and so the section on ‘Leaving words out’ (or ‘ellipsis’) explains how speakers omit words rather than repeat them – another way of creating cohesion within a text.

 

Conventional terminology

Collins COBUILD English Grammar does not, however, throw common sense out with the bathwater. A learner who looks up ‘personal pronouns’ or ‘subordinate clauses’, for example, will find them both in the index and referred to by name in the main text. Students and teachers can still find references to such conventional concepts as tenses, different types of noun (countable, uncountable, compound, abstract, etc.), comparative and superlative forms of adjectives, and the subjunctive.

What is notable about Collins COBUILD English Grammar is (1) the way it organizes the information and (2) its pragmatic approach. It describes how language can be used to write and speak more appropriately and effectively, and provides us with tools for describing how language is used in a wide range of real-life contexts. As a functional grammar, it offers students a way of seeing how meaning and form are related, focusing on language as a resource rather than a set of rules.

 

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


Halliday, M. (1994). An Introduction to Functional Grammar (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Academic Skills Series shortlisted for ELTons 2014 award

We are thrilled that the six books in the Collins Academic Skills Series have been shortlisted in the Innovation in learner resources category at the 2014 ELTons awards!

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Catherine Whitaker, Publishing Director for Collins ELT explains what makes this series special

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Collins’ Academic Skills Series is a six-book series for international students of all academic subjects who are studying, or preparing to study, at an English-speaking institution. Essential study skills and English language practice are combined to help students achieve their best on their course. The six books are on the following topics: Research, Writing, Presenting, Lectures, Group Work, and Numbers (for the non-specialist).

At Collins we’ve already published a large range of IELTS and TOEFL preparation books. In fact, we have one of our IELTS authors, Els van Geyte, to thank for the idea that sparked this new series. As a tutor at the University of Birmingham she noticed how students, even those with very good IELTS scores, needed help bridging the gap between the very specific demands of IELTS and the different demands of academic English. Their English might still have needed some improvement but above all, they needed help with understanding what was being demanded of them academically at university level.

I was particularly interested in the Lectures book because my own experience of studying overseas was while doing a course on French language and culture at the Sorbonne in Paris in the 90s. All the input on literature and culture was through lectures. When my eyes weren’t taking in the ornate wooden carvings and the ceiling paintings in the beautiful lecture theatre, all my energy was focussed on following the lectures on subjects that were completely new to me. The linguistic load was huge – I had just finished school and my French was coming on in leaps and bounds but it was a challenge to understand the content. How to take notes was the hardest part – in English? in imperfect French? How can you write when you are trying so hard to listen? My 17-year-old self would have loved the Lectures book which answers all these questions. It also contains authentic lectures to give readers a real experience of what to expect.

It’s always great when the publishing that you’ve worked on is recognised on an award shortlist but I’m particularly pleased that this series has come to the judges’ attention. The challenge with this series was to produce books on very different subjects but get them to fit together as a series so that students and teachers could choose one or two or more books to work through, depending on their needs. I think Celia Wigley, who commissioned these titles, our authors and the whole team in producing the series have done a wonderful job.

Find out more about the six Academic Skills titles

Collins Work on your Accent: Review 

Have you read the December issue of the EL Gazette yet? There’s a great review of Collins Work on your Accent on page 15

Collins Work on your Accent helps students soften the influence of their mother tongue when they speak English. Professional accent coaches Sarah and Helen show students how to pronounce each sounds and when to use them. They help students recognize how their particular native language influences their pronunciation in English, and on which sounds to focus in order to improve. Watch Sarah and Helen explain how the book works in this YouTube video! 

This splendid book is extremely user-friendly, and one I would strongly recommend as a supplement to speaking courses everywhere. I honestly think I’m going to have so much fun with it over the next few years.

Wayne Trotman, EL Gazette, December 2012