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Grammar as she is spoke.

HOW DO YOU WRITE your e-mails? Do you write blackberry? In other words, do you write like you speak? Naked Chef author Jamie Oliver and broadcast journalist Jeremy Clarkson do it--and with great success. Dictionaries and grammars always have taken the written language as a benchmark for what is proper and standard. The spoken language has been downgraded, as what is written and what is literate has higher cultural status. Our language, though, is changing. People are beginning to write more like they speak.

Recent advances in audio and recording technologies mean that there now are collections of people speaking in both formal and informal situations. The Cambridge International Corpus, developed by Cambridge University Press, contains more than 1,000,000,000 words of English with several million words of spoken English.

These examples are collected in everyday places such as shops, pubs, the workplace, and family home. The people recorded in the Corpus come from different regions of the country and incorporate a range of ages, social classes, and gender. These recordings then are transcribed and made computer-readable so that computer programs can identify frequent patterns and changes in the language.

The Corpus also has plenty of examples of e-mails, magazines, newspapers, texting, and advertisements that show how the spoken and written varieties of English are more closely connected than we might have thought For instance, we are becoming very vague in the way we speak (and write). We all use a lot of vague language, including words and phrases such as thing, stuff, or so, or something, and sort of. Vague language avoids information overload and involves the reader. For example: "He was talking about sport, Wimbledon, the World Cup, U.S. Open Golf and that sort of stuff." (Observer Magazine). Here are some common examples of spoken grammar:

* There are forms that are termed heads, found at the beginning of clauses. They help listeners orient to the topic: The white house on the comer, is that where she lives?

* There are forms that are termed tails, found at the end of clauses. They help to reinforce what we are saying: I'm going to have steak and fries, I am.

* Spoken ellipsis occurs when we omit subjects and verbs because we can assume our listeners know what we mean: Sounds good to me (instead of: That sounds good to me).

* When quoting someone especially, it is important to signify an ellipsis with a series of three evenly spaced dots: "I don't ... care what my boss thinks of me" is an effective way to leave out an expletive. Another option is to substitute another word in brackets instead of the three dots: "I don't [really] care what my boss thinks of me."

* Ellipsis, in particular, especially is common in certain kinds of writing such as e-mall and Internet communications. E-mail communication often is direct and immediate. We prefer to sound informal: "Could you e-mall Jim and get a quote for a wireless PC with Intel 4 processor? Said we'd do a deal with Hammond. Sony or Toshiba preferably. At least 80Gb hard disk. Good deal, tell Peter. More on the way."

Recipes written by Oliver have a similar feel. They are written like an e-mall, as if he is there talking to you. "So, you've got your bacon and bread. Lovely."

In fact, one of the most significant changes affecting the English language over the last 10 or so years is the growing presence of spoken forms in writing. For example, heads and tails occur increasingly in writing. Here is Clarkson writing in The Sunday Times: "It doesn't feel like a car, this." The tail (this) adds emphasis to the statement and makes it all sound more like a chat with the reader.

Sometimes specific spoken "conjunctions" do this job (mind you, well, right, what's more, so). For instance: "So there I was sitting in Mick Jagger's kitchen while he went about making us both afternoon tea. Well, you can imagine how long it took to get him to talk about the band's latest album. Exactly. You've got it. Over two minutes. (The Daily Telegraph Magazine)

Both advertisers and journalists make use of ellipsis. It sounds as if they are on the same level as you and keeping an open dialogue going. They then give an answer to your supposed question. It is highly interactive--and clever; the soft sell rather than hard sell to get their points across.

Lexicographers and grammarians have to decide whether such features are to be ignored because they form a deviation from "standard" usage, or whether they are to be included because they are used by speakers of Standard English. As collections of recorded spoken language and contemporary written forms expand, more evidence of this kind will come to light and grammarian usage books will include such examples.

Right, well, so, it is all change with grammar then. Okay, right. Got you.

Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy (emeritus) are professors in the Department of English Studies, University of Nottingham, U.K., and coauthors of Cambridge Grammar of English.
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Title Annotation:WORDS IMAGES
Author:Carter, Ronald; McCarthy, Michael
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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