The distinctive features of spoken English

EXAM TITLE: What are the differences between written English and (a) spoken prose (b) conversation?

Written English

It is first necessary to define what sort of written English. Semi-formal written English is in one sense less and in another sense more redundant than the spoken forms of the language.

Repetitions and duplications are usually avoided to a greater extent than in conversation, though a semi-formal style may still render some examples.

Intonation contours, stress patterns, junctures (transition and boundary features) and tone of voice are absent in written English. But spelling, word boundaries and punctuation are present.

Spoken prose

Spoken prose may consist of a speech, a sermon, a taped report or a radio broadcast scripted in advance and in the form of a monologue. It may be read or recited almost anywhere, but the speaker may equally be within visual contact of an audience.

It is not created spontaneously in the same way as conversation is born, but the speaker may nevertheless make conscious or incidental use of expressive features such as tone of voice, gesture and facial expression.


Because of its spontaneous creation, conversation can be related more closely to the extra-lingual context and the responses of the listeners.

Speakers may be prompted to vary the speed of speech within segments, to lengthen pauses and to repeat words or add modifications according to the apparent degree of comprehension or momentary inattention on the part of listeners.

Conversation usually involves more than one party actively taking part and having the possibility to interrupt. It therefore tends to be more intimate and more personally relevant than other spoken forms.

Applying the criteria set out by Joos in "The Five Clocks", the description of "casual style" and "consultative style" help to illustrate some of the characteristics of conversation in the most likely contexts in which it can occur.

When the dialogue involves family or close friends (usually "casual style"), little or no information is given which is not known to the participants. Well-known formulae are used with great frequency.

When the conversation involves strangers (usually "consultative" style) all necessary background information is supplied and more elaborate politeness procedures are added to the well-known formulae for requests, questions, orders, suggestions and acknowl

In such situations where there is a large information gap and a need to be explicit through the language, a rarer but more formal style of language may be witnessed, bridging the gap between certain aspects of conversation and spoken prose.

Linguistic features of English conversation

Studies of the pronunciation of ordinary spoken English using transcripts of real-life conversations reveal the following characteristics:

  1. Loss of initial or final consonants e.g. the funnies(t) thing I've ... isn'(t) it.
  2. Assimilation of consonants
  3. Vowel reduction e.g. once (i)n a while
  4. Combinations of the above
  5. Coalescence e.g. Let me ge(t you a) drink, what do you want?
  6. Close juncture between words in rhythm groups e.g. I don't think it's all that good. Have a good lunch. Celia darling. It's really pretty funny.
  7. Continuous flow of sound produced by the physical linking of one word to the next within the phrases.
  8. Strong contrast is often made in conversation between heavy and weak stresses. Syllables which unsergo the process of reduction inherent in this contrast can be rendered obscure, indeterminate or even non-existent.
  9. Grammatical and lexical material may disappear e.g. Oh, it does you good [ (to have a good) laugh once in a while,] doesn't it. I haven't laughed at anything so much for a long time (Highly stressed syllables).
  10. Since conversation isn't scripted in advance, it rarely uses the width of vocabulary and the complicated structures which are normally associated with written English or more formal styles of the language.
  11. The act of conversation sets its own challenges which include establishing contact with the intended listener(s) and filling in time while preparing a context for segments of the utterance containing a properly organised message.
  12. The above functions are served through conversation tags and fillers, exclamations, expletives, hesitations and even longer formulae e.g. isn't it? I think I mean You know, don't you?
  13. In many conversations where agreable noise-making is called upon to fulfil a social function, it is often possible to retreat from the creative challenge or the mental discipline needed to say anything of substance.
  14. At times when we want to relax our minds as well as on the occasions when we need more time to organise our thoughts we tend to fall back on lines we have rehearsed over and over again.
  15. The above include the idioms, colloquial clichés and polite formulae which are much in evidence in utterances between friends e.g. the funniest thing I've ever seen, terribly funny (colloquial clichés); mind you; have a good laugh (idioms)
  16. Word length in conversation is generally shorter than in other forms of spoken English. As speakers, most of us have greater familiarity with words of one or two syllables.
  17. Conversation is usually made up of simple phrasal and compound verbs and the limited vocabulary used to serve the basic functions of agreement, offering, acceptance, greeting, request-making, stating & modifying beliefs, questioning & responding.
  18. The above areas are well-rehearsed and it is customary to use an unintimidating vocabulary.
  19. The creative challenge of conversation often fails to result in syntactically perfect sentences. In this sense, sentences are not always simple. They are sometimes loose, awkward or vague. It is not easy to use the notion of "sentence".
  20. Complete utterances in conversation may be phrases which would be regarded as fragmentary in writing or spoken prose. There is often considerable use of contractions e.g. Haven't seen you for years. Err, Frank; Eve. Err, gin & tonic please.
  21. Note that when two people are being introduced to one another, the context of "Err Robert; Susan." is provided by physical gesture and facial expression.
  22. As sentences, conversational utterances are often "mixed" or "stringy" in syntactic form and omission of words is fairly common. Hesitations, self-interruptions, repetitions & false starts leave their mark on what may aptly be called a series of segments. e.g. Well, I mean - I mean bits of it are - bits of it are quite funny aren't they. I mean bits of it. You know, don't you.
  23. The arrangement of words gives more play to the intonation patterns of spoken English. Instead of saying " Do you like it?" consider: "You like it, do you?"
  24. Utterances are constructerd so as to make way for exclamations and question tags. Example: heavy use of Tune 1 "it's funny, isn't it" to elicit strong agreement. Heavy use of Tune 2 to raise a note of discord.
  25. The characteristics which differentiate conversation from spoken Prose or semi-formal written English mostly relate to the nature of the interaction (i.e.It's not monologue), the need to produce and organise spontaneously & the social functions it serves.
  26. A knowledge of where sounds are articulated in the mouth coupled with signals as to the directions in which speech organs are moving and whether to expect "voiced" or "voiceless" stops, will help the non-native speaker develop similar listening skills
  27. It is not difficult for teachers to demonstrate the relatively short vowel and voiceless stop in the word "seat" and to compare them with the longer vowel and voiced stop in the word "seed".
  28. Indirect as well as direct procedures can be practised in identifying voiceless and voiced consonant sounds. In this context, learners will both appreciate how simplification comes about and develop sufficient sensitivity to the sound of "informal English" to overcome the obstacles which features such as elision & assimilation present to the non-native listener.

Listening to Spoken English

Teaching Listening Comprehension Penny Ur [09/02/1984] especially useful for for producing your own materials

Teaching the Spoken Language Gillian Brown, George Yule [01/02/1984] excellent for those essays on the distinctive features of spoken English

Poetry Archive

BBC iPlayer: Radio programmes A to Z

Discussions That Work Penny Ur [1981] buy used very cheaply on abebooks - good for materials production

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