“Spoken Standard English” – Jenny Cheshire

Central Point: The introduction of the National Curriculum for English in England and Wales has highlighted for linguists at least, that we know very little about the syntactic structure of spoken English.


  • For: It is not only spoken English that is misunderstood but also the grammatical structure of spoken English.
  • Against: The conventional descriptions we use to try and describe spoken English.
  • As these descriptions fit written English and perhaps the speech produced by educated speakers in formal situations. They do not represent the speech that most people make in informal situations.


  1. “Our frameworks of analysis conform to the views of language that we have acquired during our education rather than to the variety of language that we produce during face to face interaction.”

Linguists need to pay attention to the fact that the way in which they analyse language- particularly spoken language may be affected by their own beliefs about language. This may affect the way that they understand the syntax of spoken language.

  • Brown and Yule point out that the people who typically write upon language are “middle aged academics” – individuals who have spent numerous years immersed in written language and therefore whose speech is more likely to represent written forms. This supports Cheshire’s contention that the current descriptions of spoken language are not representative.
  • A further issue is the extent to which such researchers can escape from “the ethos of linguistic correctness” which they have been exposed to during their education.
  • This was highlighted by Lakoff in 1977; she stated that the distinction between description and prescription was still blurrier than we might like: “particularly in areas where we have been brought up to make value judgements before we learned to be disinterested academic observers”.
  • Meechan and Foley further this point in 1994 by saying that: “even the most careful introspection can fail to filter out the effects of prescriptive grammar.”

  1. “Conventional approaches to linguistic analysis, then, predispose us to look for a “one form, one meaning relationship” and we risk overlooking the features typical of spoken language, whose meaning is pragmatically determined.”

Through following traditional research methods the insight we gain into spoken language is one which is very limited and omits key features of language which correspond to context etc.

  • Due to this “one form, one meaning relationship” – variation in Standard English is very rare, so therefore the places where variation does exist attracts much attention and research. This means that the features of spoken language which vary depending on the linguistic contexts in which they occur (i.e. features which are more typical of spontaneous speech than of writing and that are less open to perception as different ways of saying the same thing) are more likely to be less suitable for variation researchers and less noticeable.
  • For example this is displayed by the example: “never” functioning as a negative marker. As a quantifier its meaning is determined by the linguistic context in which it appears and the syntactic and semantic relationship which it enters can only be understood by considering it in context.

But these relationships do not seem to be accessible to our intuitions. Therefore “conventional analyses” see “never” as an indeterminate equivalent to “not ever” like “none” is to “not any”.


In cases such as “I never went out last night”, where the time reference is to a restricted period of time “never” cannot be seen to be equivalent to “not ever” and this is something which analyses miss. In missing this distinction they frequently mislabel the use of “never” in such situations as “non standard”, despite the fact that the context occurs in educated speech and in writing.

  1. Lack of frequency of spoken English is a reason why some spoken English features have been overlooked in the past.

“There are other constructions which occur less frequently and which it is all too easy therefore to discount as performance errors.”

  • Montgomery calls these “fused constructions”.
  • He mentions more than 50 examples of “fused constructions” beginning with “that”.
  • Speakers use this construction to cohere foregoing and following discourse- it also occurs when speakers are summing up what they have been saying and “creates order out of chaos”.
  • His example pulls out and condenses the most important information from what had been a long and rambling answer to the fieldworker’s question: “what do you do for a good time?”- “that’s the best way I ever found to think is just to walk back up through the woods or something”.
  • “Fused Constructions” are multifunctional; they can help speakers to seize the floor, express emphasis, ensure coherence and as summary constructions impose a hierarchic organisation on the necessarily linear development of discourse.


  1. Other types of syntactic structure that may not be accessible to our intuitions are those that occur more frequently in certain genres than in others.
  • Carter and McCarthy – point out that grammatical features are not always distributed equally across different genres.
  • For example: they found that “left dislocation” occurs more frequently in narratives.
  • In extracts of recordings of a group of four 12-14 year olds speakers who were discussing “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, it was found that the determiner in “wh- descriptive clauses” is almost always “that” rather than “the”. “That” is a way of foregrounding a referent putting it into high focus. Frequently occurs in a cluster of features expressing interpersonal involvement. The “wh- descriptive clauses” can be seen as an involvement strategy – necessary for the joint construction of shared remembering.

Cheshire states that all of the above factors: “affect the models and frameworks that we have developed to analyse language, and they constitute an important reason for our ignorance about the structure of the syntax of spoken English.”

I agree with Cheshire contentions as spoken discourse varies a lot more than written discourse, however much research does not reflect or portray these differences effectively since such would require countless recordings of numerous contexts with numerous speakers.

Honey would disagree with Cheshire’s contention that spoken Standard English differs from written Standard English as he says that: “English is the most powerful language in the modern world. It seems equally clear that of all the dialects of English currently extant, Standard English is far and away the most dominant.” He sees no distinction between written English and spoken English – he even goes to the extent of saying that the: “two genres (spoken and written English) have in recent years been growing closer together”.

However the work of Carter and McCarthy like Cheshire affirms suggests that the grammar of spoken English is significantly different from that of written English.



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