What are the main differences between spoken and written English grammar


What are the main differences between spoken and written English grammar? To what extent and in what circumstances is it appropriate to teach ‘spoken grammar’? Make use of relevant literature in your answer.


Spoken grammar provides learners with grammatical choices to create utterances which can provide a deeper interactive and interpersonal use of language. (McCarthy, 2017). It is spontaneous and transient. However, it is still struggling under the burden of grammatical metalanguage inherited from writing, leading to a notable loss of its natural and informal qualities. Meanwhile, the development of technology forces us to consider conversation and spoken grammar deeply. Thanks to the advent of computer software and some

sound recording technologies, spoken grammar can be analyzed and transcribed faithfully and completely as a corpus. Corpus is a principled collection of texts stored in a computer and is always transcribed and stored for purposes and specific types such as businesses (Carter, 2003). However, there were a hundred million written grammar words for storing only ten million words of spoken grammar. Issues affecting the development of corpus include the difficulty of finding participants and transcribing content. In their research, Goh (2009) and Shin (2007) independently identify the evolution of the English language as another issue. Although the corpus data exists in its inequality, this essay stresses the importance of spoken grammar in the following sections. Based on this short introduction and the following historical foundation, the main purposes can better explore the differences between spoken and written grammar and discuss the implications and appropriate circumstances to teach spoken grammar from both students’ and teachers’ perspectives.

Background of Spoken Grammar

The Origins of Spoken Grammar

Spoken grammar has existed since people began to speak. Many young British people communicated with gentlemen around the world in Latin to learn about different cultures. At that time, what they learned in school is spoken Latin, which is the spoken grammar. Vulgaria is the Latin they learned in school. It means common and ordinary things as opposed to classic literature. (McCarthy&Carter 2017). The examples Vulgaria used to teach students were very colloquial and supportive of the spoen language. It acquired students to use spoken Latin for their ‘real-life’ and suggested students spoken Latin on school premises.

The Decline of Spoken Grammar

However, Vulgaria provided the grammar for speaking. There was no authentic record left for teaching spoken grammar. Therefore, although Latin grammar was the

guiding paradigm of English grammar and influenced some grammarians like Lowth and Harris, it was targeted by the later formed trend towards prescriptivism and explicit proscriptions. (McCarthy & Carter 2017). Prescriptivism refers to the practices where correct and incorrect use of language or specific linguistic items are laid down by rules externally imposed on the user of the language. Explcit proscriptions are also based on creating rules on forbidden use of items or certain formulas in language. The familiar styles of speaking grammar such as ellipsis and fronting can prevail in common conversation but cannot be suitable to the solemn style because it omitted the relatives and over-focused on the familiar styles. Prescriptivism has seriously influenced the development of grammar in the following centuries. The authority of grammar is almost always along with written conventions, although it has always been mentioned in speaking.

The Status Change of Spoken Grammar

The development, such as the broadcasting and recording technology and the international commerce in the 20th century, along with the thinking of language study, spoken grammar has been re-asserted because of its importance in description and pedagogy. Many grammarians re-stressed the spoken grammar. Henry Sweet (1899) stated that teaching language should be in accordance with the principles ‘starting from the spoken rather than the literacy language.’ He pointed out the importance of chunk and clusters because it has characteristics like ellipsis and disconnections; however, they are always neglected in pedagogy because they are difficult to bring in the conventional grammar system. (Sweet 1899:121-169).

The Revival of Spoken Grammar

In the latter 20th century, the advent of corpora such as London-Lund Corpus of spoken English and other corpora developed and collected a majority of spoken data for different purposes like business. These data resulted in an explosion of publications demonstrating the features of spoken grammar, especially for daily conversation. The corpus investigations into various chunks in the daily spoken language provided a large amount of data basis for the research of spoken grammar and forced people to re-think the spoken grammar of ordinary people as opposed to the written grammar for use in literature.

The Main Differences between Spoken Grammar and Written Grammar

Many grammarians have provided definitions of spoken and written grammar. One of the definitions is that, written grammar is

typically associated with materials such as course books, some prose, and classic literature. It is formal and academic. This section will discuss several differences that will influence the teaching approaches and the purposes in the teaching process. However, spoken grammar tends to be full of incomplete sentences, corrections, repetitions, and interruptions. Moreover, Carter (1995) issued that it needs speakers to use intonation, volume, gesture, facial expressions, and pitch to express their feeling to complete the face-to- face interaction.

The Functional Difference

The fundamental difference between spoken grammar and written grammar is that spoken grammar focuses on fluency; however, written grammar focuses on accuracy. Written grammar consists of grammar rules for writing academic styles, such as punctuation and verb tenses (Shin, 2007). Written grammar is prepared for demonstrating accuracy and preciseness. However, the fluency emphasized in spoken grammar does not match up to the standards used in the past. Usually, testing the speaker’s fluency, schools, or teachers will provide some oral exams or allow the speaker to talk about a topic for one or two minutes. According to McCarthy (1995), this kind of oral test cannot represent how natural conversation is demonstrated in our daily lives. He stresses the fluency of spoken grammar is expressing the same meaning of the word flow, which comes from the word fluo ray in Latin. Fluency means to speak like flowing on a river. For example, fluency demonstrates daily routine, such as a casual conversation between two peers on a friendly topic. The fluency concept is not in accordance with the fluency that academics and professional language educators share with ordinary people. Besides, fluency means someone can understand what the previous speaker says and give feedback. Timmis (2002) terms it as a fundamental element of fluency to show the ability to bridge the conversation by understanding what the topic discusses and hooking the subordinate clause onto the previous speaker.

Meanwhile, the functional difference should be taken into consideration when syllabus designers select the content for language teaching. On the one hand, a syllabus for oral class should naturally be composed of spoken grammar, which improves learners’ ability to speak fluently and confidently in the target language. For example, setting typically daily communication scenarios for students to complete dialogue in English. It should be emphasized on students’ ability to naturally and emotionally express themselves in real conversations with appropriate words

accompanied by facial expression as native speakers always do in their conversations. On the other hand, for written grammar, the materials and syllabus should be chosen for improving writing skills, which should consist of grammatical rules such as tense. In accordance with the functions of spoken grammar and written grammar, the courses should contain different materials and methods to meet the purposes in the class.

The Difference in Lexical Selection

Some grammarians discussed in the literature the differences between spoken and written grammar. Carter and McCarthy (1997) stated that common grammatical features found in a rare conversational corpus function differently in writing. Many words are frequently used in speaking; however, they are either absent from writing or less commonly used in writing. For example, according to Shin (2007), he collected around 10,000,000 running words from the British National Corpus. What he found is that the most frequent two words phrase is you know in speaking in English. This means that about twelve thousand examples of you know in a corpus of five million words.

However, according to his findings, based on several written corpus including the Brown corpus, the Wellington Written (WWC), and the British National Corpus, the frequency of you know in written language is higher than that in spoken English. Therefore, the lexical choice of spoken and written grammar is different. Another example is that people change the word say in spoken grammar to other words like declare, confirm and state because many coursebooks such as Cambridge grammar of English suggested learners to use these words in academic styles to show their preciseness and authority. Therefore, in teaching spoken grammar, the materials should be selected, like mainly containing spoken grammar since it is always served for listening class to comprehend the context because it is more effective for learners to process the information in a shorter time. Therefore, the difference in lexical selection provides thinking of audio materials when teachers teach language.

The Difference in Syntactic Structure

Another difference between spoken and written grammar is the syntactic structure. In the field of written grammar, the articles should basically contain complete sentences

in the academic style. However, in a real conversation, the distinct characteristic of spoken grammar is incomplete syntactic structures and short clauses, often called conversational sentence structure (Timmis, 2005). The main reason is that the immediate social and interpersonal situation often influences spoken language. Besides, it must be occurred in real-time and tends to be unplanned. According to Carter & McCarthy (1997), it is called situational ellipsis. For example, some short sentences used in casual conversations do not make any sense in written grammar. For example, the question ready yet? Is used in a real conversation as a complete sentence, yet makes no sense in written grammar. The whole process is called situational ellipsis because all the conversations take place in their situations. Ellipsis, in the traditional meaning, is leaving out or omitting things that should be there. (Carter & McCarthy, 1997). This is the incomplete syntactic structure in which written grammar does not involve. When people write texts, they elaborate and complement the sentences to understand no matter where they are or when they are read. Therefore, written texts need complete sentences to support the authors’ meaning.

The Main Features of Spoken Grammar

Discussing the main features of spoken grammar can be beneficial for finding its appropriate place in language teaching. Spoken grammar has various features such as interruption, incomplete sentence structure, back-channeling, and ellipsis. Some professional grammarians and linguists provide their views on spoken grammar. The great grammarian Yan (2014) stated that conversation reflects online, linear nature in the brevity of utterances. Conversation is where we find the most outstanding differences between speaking and writing. This essay will discuss some key features of spoken grammar, demonstrating its importance and providing its value, especially in teaching language.

The Co-construction

The co-construction concept is proposed by McCarthy (1998) and it means doing things together. The co-construction occurs in ordinary conversation, which consists of several people. For example, person A said: Nobody’s at home. I have to cook by myself. Person B replied: which will be very hard for you. Person C said: Yeah, because you are poor at cooking. The whole conversation includes some complete sentences which have some main clauses and subordinate clauses like which clauses. However, they are created by three people, and it is prevalent in spoken language. It means that spoken language facilitates interpersonal bonding because it is a social action that will unconsciously help one person bond with another. Moreover, it enables the negotiation of meanings. Human has to search out what the speaker talking about and try to respond by negotiating. This is the most important element what the essay discussed before. It shows the fluency in the whole conversation; namely, people can connect their clauses to the previous speaker. The implications and applications of this feature will be discussed in the next section.

The Strategic Use of Tense-Aspect System

The second feature of spoken grammar is the tense-aspect system. In English, tense refers to time, which mainly is four tense: present, past, present continuous, and past continuous tense. Aspect refers to the speaker’s interpretation of time, such as perfect, non-perfect, continuous, and simple (McCarthy, 2017). An example of a tense-aspect system is the usage of say. In the section of reported speech in many coursebooks, there are lots of practice like Tony says we are going for a picnic. Furthermore, learners should change it like: Tony said they were going for a picnic. According to Carter (2003), the corpus records that what people use hundreds of times are not Tony said, but Tony was saying. This means they use past continuous form to report people to say. However, many coursebooks do not involve because it is a part of speaking. What surprises are people always use this tense like here’s a new topic instead of I have a report of someone to preface something interesting. This means spoken grammar has a signal like here: grammatical chunks to draw other people’s attention.

Another example of the tense-aspect system of spoken grammar is that I was wanting to book a room. From the perspective of many native speakers I wanted to book a room does not exist any grammar mistakes. However, was wanting can express a sense of distance by demonstrating the politeness which wanted cannot

express (Yan, 2014). This can also show the importance of spoken grammar to demonstrate speakers’ politeness and relations.

The Back-Channels and Fillers

On the one hand, in linguistics, backchannels happen in conversations when one participant needs to respond to his feedback to the previous speaker. Backchannels can be divided into verbal, non-verbal, and both. Verbal backchannel response would be like ‘uh-huh’ ‘I see’ ‘yeah’ to acknowledge what the previous speaker is saying and show his encouragement to continue the topic. Non-verbal backchannel response like some vocalized sounds which have no meaning. They are widely used in conversation for surprising, thinking, and agreement. Back-channels are an essential component of spoken languages because they are frequently presented in all cultures and have various usages. For example, people can use different tones of uh-huh to express their different feelings on the same event. On the other hand, fillers are some short utterances and words like Don’t tell me, By the way, Well, you see. Sometimes, fillers do not have a specific meaning, but it can help native speakers and language learners to talk fluently. They can provide the speakers with time to consider and organize the sentence structure. According to linguist Barbara A. Fox, he pointed out that filler words may have fairly minimal lexical content; however, they can play a strategic syntactic role in an unfolding utterance. (Fillers 2010). There are some advantages to fillers. Firstly, fillers can be seen as a hesitation form. For example, you know it is one of the most common hesitation forms. It can push the topic for the next thought. If there are no fillers, what can fill the moment of silence? It is an essential element for pushing the conversation. Secondly, fillers can help reduce anxiety and nervousness. Recent research at Columbia University has found that speakers use fillers to pauses when searching the word. To investigate the idea, they counted and compared the number of filler words used by various speakers. Then they found the conclusion that fillers can help cope with the time limitation for searching the words. (Timmis, 2011).

The circumstances and reasons of teaching spoken grammar

This essay has introduced the characteristics of spoken grammar and its differences from written grammar (3.1, above). In this section, this essay will provide some circumstances of teaching and learning spoken grammar and theoretical reasons for

teaching spoken grammar which can show its value and significance in language teaching. In the last part, it also will provide some suggestions of spoken grammar.

Circumstance 1 and Its Reasons to Teach Spoken Grammar

Learners have mastered written grammar and usually have the ability to write in academic style, however, they might weak in everyday communication. Many Chinese students always complain that they have difficulty to communicate in English, however, their listening, reading and writing skills are not as weak as speaking. Based on this situation, Spoken grammar might be appropriately taught through combing different tasks such as cultural access tasks, noticing tasks, language discussion tasks to help learners understand and interact with spoken grammar. For example, the cultural access task provides some context of the target language. Teachers can ask learners about the advantages and disadvantages of living in the place. Cultural access task aims to help learners relate the texts of the target language to their own culture. Through this way which combined cultural elements to teach spoken grammar, teachers play a role to as demonstrators to illustrate the key features of spoken grammar meanwhile it is relatively natural to help learners to wake up their notice to ordinary conversation.They can illustrate how the features happened in ordinary conversation because learners do not know the corpus data, and they should try to noticed the spoken grammar by observation from their teachers. McCarthy(1995) called this show in the conversation, which means it is important for learners to notice the features and let students’ interact with these conversations. According to Timmis(2005), spoken grammar teaching will be more reasonable in the natural conversation and engage students’ interest. Based on these two criteria, it is appropriate to teach spoken grammar with various communicative tasks to learners who lack ability to communicate in target language. A teacher interviewed in Goh(2009) stated that spoken grammar reveals an authentic picture of language use to students, a world full of incomplete sentences, phrases, vague language, discourse markers, etc. It also proves that spoken grammar should be taught in more familiar way.

Circumstance 2 and Its Appropriacy of Teaching Spoken Grammar

Apart from students who can not speak in English, another situation is students can not speak out without over-thinking the sentence structures. According to Goh (2009),

L2 learners are bound to sound bookish without using spoken grammar features. Some students even consider that the way of speaking sounds ridiculous because it is like a TV announcer. According to the research of Goh (2009), many teachers found a misconception among Chinese learners, which should construct perfect sentences modeled after written language. They may always over-think the sentence structure, which prevents the communicating process. Based on this circumstance, teaching spoken grammar is appropriate because spoken grammar can be seen as a practice for learners. It can be a springboard for their personalization. It helps them to create their own sentences like native speakers. According to another research of Goh(2000), in China, 87% of Chinese teachers consider that learning spoken grammar is useful and essential because the characteristics of spoken grammar can meet the learning purpose of most language learners, which is to communicate as fluently as a native speaker. The fluency learners pursue is not just the monologue from a single person but also the ability to listen to and respond to native speakers in everyday conversation. Furthermore, that is what exactly the features of the spoken grammar embody. Meanwhile, learning fillers and backchannels(4.3, above) is also a method for learners to understand native speakers’ reactions to everyday conversations. Spoken grammar is a must for language learners, as it helps them to increase confidence. Learning the features of spoken grammar such as ellipsis can release learners’ anxiety and help them overcome the psychological disorder. Moreover, it can also help learners produce natural spoken output by understanding spoken grammar knowledge.

Therefore, teaching spoken grammar for L2 learners are useful and essential. Although there are some concerns about how to teach spoken grammar have not been solved based on different teaching situations, many grammarians still consider that teaching spoken grammar is beneficial to learners.

Theoretical Supports of Teaching Spoken Grammar

After analyzing some circumstances, there are three grounds for believing that it is appropriate to teach native speaker spoken language in the classroom: Firstly, according to some linguists such as Carter and McCarthy(1995) pointed out that the key features of spoken grammar(section 3, above) have been omitted and neglected in many ELT materials, although they are widely used by a large number of native speakers. For example, the tense-aspect system(4.2, above) and the fluency(4.1,

above) of spoken grammar the essay have mentioned before. Secondly, according to Timmis (2002) stated that despite the increasing use of English in international contexts, a considerable number of teachers and learners in various teaching and learning contexts, express their desires to comply with native-speaker grammar norms, including informal grammar, (although they are more colloquial). It means that teachers and learners desire to attach spoken language. Thirdly, Timmis also (2002) still indicated there is a consensus among teachers that learners should at least be exposed to spoken grammar.

Although it cannot be a conclusive case for teaching spoken grammar, it still indicate spoken grammar should be investigated and it has the value and significance of teaching.

Suggestions of Teaching Spoken Grammar

There are some suggestions from the perspectives of teachers and learners. On one side, to maximize the benefits of spoken grammar, teachers should attempt their teaching of spoken grammar under the linguistic and social environment. According to Timmis(2005), native speakers are habitual users of English for all communicative purposes like talking jokes and stories. However, this does not mean that they are more persuasive users of English than non-native speakers. On the other side, the learner should practice more by communicating in English to reinforcing the features and create better interaction with other people. Besides, they should distinguish what is for spoken and what is for writing.


This essay has mainly provided some main differences between written and spoken grammar: Spoken grammar focuses on fluency while written grammar stresses accuracy. Spoken grammar is prone to use different lexis from written grammar. It is plausible for spoken grammar to occur incomplete sentences which are not allowed to appear in written grammar. This essay also provided a strong foundation for teaching spoken grammar in different situations by introducing the key features of spoken grammar such as co-construction, tense-aspect system, fillers, and backchannels. In the fourth part, this essay has stressed the significance of teaching spoken grammar and provided the relevant connections between the features and

the implications of learning spoken grammar. The fluency concept can help learners speak more naturally; meanwhile, fillers and backchannels reduce anxiety and encourage learners to speak in English. Besides, the essay has suggested teaching by some task-based approaches, for example, culture across tasks for learners to consider and understand the target language’s culture. However, the main problem should not be neglected, for teachers, the use of methodologies which should be carefully applied to an appropriate linguistic and social environment. Besides, learners should practice more to familiarize themselves with spoken grammar features to communicate in English.


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Carter, R.&M, McCarthy. (1997) Exploring Spoken English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goh, C. (2009) Perspective on Spoken Grammar Oxford: Oxford University Press. McCarthy, M. & R. Carter. (1995) What is spoken grammar and how should we teach it?. ELT Journal 49/3: 207–17.

McCarthy, M. (1998) The Spoken Language and Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M.(2017) Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?.

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Timmis, I. (2002) Native-speaker norms and international English: a classroom view. ELT Journal 56/3: 240–9.

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Yan, X. (2014) Differences between Spoken Language and Written Language and Their Influence in English Teaching. Oversea English:126-127.

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