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:
- 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.
- 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?
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.
- You take a picture and post it on social media with a comment.
- You tell your family about what happened when you get home.
- 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?
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.
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.
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2015) ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?’ Applied Linguistics