School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

Spoken English features

Some general features of spoken English


Listeners may show the speaker that they are listening and understanding by saying mmm or little words like yeah, usually skilfully placed at the end of a clause. These are called backchannels or, sometimes, minimal responses.

Clause combining

When they are speaking spontaneously people do not usually have time to combine their clauses in the varied ways that they might use in writing (when they might have many subordinate clauses introduced by a range of conjunctionss such as however, therefore or since). The most frequent conjunction in spoken English is the all-purpose and. So and but are also frequent, but less so since they have more specific meanings (so suggests that what follows is the result of what has just been said, and but suggests a contrast).


When they are speaking people often refer to things that are in the immediate context. The pronouns I and you are very frequent, referring to the speaker and the listener, and so are words such as here and now. This and that are used to 'point' to things that are present or that have just been mentioned. Indefinite this is often used metaphorically, to introduce something that is new to the discourse as if it was actually present. Like the conversational historic present tense, using indefinite this involves the listener and helps to make the discourse more vivid.

Conversational historical present

When people are talking about something that happened in the past the verbs are usually in the past tense, but they are sometimes in the present tense instead (even though they are talking about the past). The present tense makes the discourse more involving and lively because events are presented as if they were actually happening right now. When a present tense verb refers to a past event the tense is termed the conversational historical present.

Past tense
I thought 'what on earth is he up to?' 
 was thinking 'what on earth is he up to?' 
Conversational historical present 
I think 'what on earth is he up to?'  
I'm thinking 'what on earth is he up to?'

Discourse markers

These include well, oh, like, of course, yeah, right, oh, and many more.

Discourse markers are important features of spoken language with many different functions. They usually perform several functions at the same time. Their overall function is to show the listener how to interpret what the speaker is saying (so they don't affect the literal meaning of what is being said). The discourse markers in the extracts illustrate some of their most typical functions:

  • marking the beginning or end of a turn
  • marking grammatical structure by being placed at the beginning or end of a clause, or at the start of reported speech
  • marking information that is new to the discourse or marking the start of a new topic
  • showing how the speaker feels about what they are about to say or about what they have already said
  • checking that the listener is following
  • creating solidarity with the listener
  • appealing to the listener for understanding

Like intensifiers, there are often striking differences between the discourse markers that younger speakers like to use and those that older speakers use.

General extenders
These are phrases like and stuff, and things, or somethingor and all that. They are termed 'general extenders' because they often indicate that the previous word is part of a set, so they extend the meaning of that word without having to specify all the members of the set. For example, and stuffin I used to wear punk ear rings and stuff refers to a set of things that people wear when they want to look like a punk. Referring to a set is not necessarily their most important function though. Sometimes people use these little words to be purposely vague, to signal that they are not quite sure about something. However their most important function seems to be to create solidarity between speakers. By using a general extender the person speaking suggests that their interlocutor shares their knowledge or opinion, so there is no need to be explicit.

These are words that downtone the meaning of the following word (e.g. that's a bit odd) or add a note of intentional vagueness to what someone is saying (e.g. she's about thirty years old; I may come along later).

These are words like very or really that occur before an adjective or an adverb and boost the strength of its meaning (very fast, really delicious, well funny). Young people often choose intensifiers that are different from those used by older generations, so intensifiers tend to fall in and out of fashion in spoken language.

This is a vowel sound that is 'pure' in that the beginning and the end of the vowel are more or less the same. This is by contrast with a diphthong, which glides from one position to another. In Multicultural London English some vowels that for older Londoners are diphthongs, such as the vowel in words that rhyme with GOAT, are now monophthongs (the spelling of GOAT reflects the two different articulations of the beginning and end of the diphthong).

Narrative structure
People often tell stories about past events, and when they do the stories often have a structure to them. They may begin with an abstract, where the speaker says what the story will be about. This is usually followed by an orientation section where people mention relevant aspects of the story such as who was involved, where they were and when the events happened. The main events of the story are given in the complicating action: a series of short clauses, in the order in which the events happened. There may then be a resolution, where the speaker tells listeners what happened in the end, and a coda which rounds off the story. Stories do not always have all these sections, but the complicating action and orientation sections are usually present. Throughout their narrative, people use different ways of making it interesting for their listeners so that they realise the point of the story.

Non-standard grammar

The extracts contain some of the nonstandard forms that are frequent throughout the English-speaking world. The main nonstandard forms in the extracts are past tense and past participle verb forms.
These are very variable, even in standard English where, for example, the past participle of LEARN can be learned or learnt (I've learned this and I've learnt this); and the past tense of RING can be rang or rung (I rang the door bell and I rung the door bell). Some of the most frequent nonstandard forms are the past tense forms of DO (I done it) and COME (I come here yesterday), but there are many more.
Past tense forms of BE are also very variable. In standard English the past tense forms are I was, you were, he/she/it was, we were and they were: except for you, they mark a distinction between singular subjects (I and he, she, it) and pluralsubjects. In most nonstandard varieties the tendency is to use just one form '“ either were where standard English has was, or was where standard English has were '“ though speakers vary between using the standard and the nonstandard forms. In most urban nonstandard varieties in the UK there is a tendency to use weren't in negative contexts and was in positive contexts, though this is changing in areas influenced by other varieties such as AfroCaribbean English or postcolonial varieties of English.

Non-fluency features

These include

  • silent pauses
  • filled pauses (er and erm '“ spelt uh and um in American English)
  • repetition
  • false starts (like crossings out in writing)

They have many functions in spoken language, including dramatic effect, highlighting what is coming next, and showing that the speaker is planning what to say next but doesn't yet want to give up their turn at speaking. Individual speakers vary in the frequency with which they use these features.

Er and erm tend to occur either at the beginning of a clauseor before a new topic is introduced. They also occur when speakers are searching for a word. Unfilled (silent) pauses are often used in the same way. These are all planning points in spoken language.

Repetition of a single word is often at the start of a clause or a noun phrase, showing that the speaker has mapped out the rough grammatical outline of what they want to say but have not yet produced the detail (e.g. I I I'll go out soon; I'd like a a a large vanilla ice cream). In these cases the repetition is usually of a function word. Sometimes speakers repeat a word but add something extra (e.g. that's lovely really lovely). Here the repeated word is more likely to be a content word. Like false starts, repetitions allow listeners to hear speakers' corrections. This is very different from writing, where in a final draft there is no trace of revisions.

Note: Content words provide the main information (what the speaker is talking about); function words have grammatical functions or relate parts of the clause together. So in the cat sat on the mat the content words are cat, sat and mat and the function words are the and on.

Quotative expressions

People often report what they or other people said. Direct reported speech (the little bear said 'someone's been sitting on my chair') is more lively and interesting than indirect reported speech (the little bear said that someone had been sitting on his chair) because by appearing to quote someone, the speaker almost acts out what they are reporting.

When they introduce direct reported speech older speakers of English mainly use SAY or GO to introduce the quote, or there may be no introduction at all (known as a zero quotative) if it is clear whose speech is being reported. Younger speakers have an additional quotative expression "also BE LIKE" and in London there is an even newer quotative expression, THIS IS +speaker. Other quotative expressions are also heard.

SAY they said 'move away'
GO they went 'move away'
ZERO 'move away'
BE LIKE they were like 'move away'

Other quotatives include:
TELL they told him 'move away'
THIS IS +speaker this is them 'move away' (perhaps only in London)
HERE's +speaker here's them 'move away' (perhaps more frequent in Ireland)
GEET/GIT they were git 'move away' (perhaps only in north-east England)

Researchers usually analyse not only the quotative expression that's used but also the content of the quote, which can be:

reported direct speech e.g. they said 'move away'
reported thought (sometimes termed internal dialogue): I was thinking 'move away!'
non-lexicalised sound: I was like 'ugh'
gesture: I went <shrugs shoulders>

Rhetorical strategies
Speakers seem to like to use three part lists (for example, we like strawberries, mangoes and apples). Sometimes they utter three consecutive clauses with the same grammatical structure but slightly different lexical content (this strategy is much loved by politicians, as listeners often spontaneously applaud after the third clause or the third item in the list).
Other strategies allow speakers to emphasise different parts of their discourse. For example they may put part of an utterance in an unusual position, as happens with 'fronting' (see Stan's story about Life in the Army).

For linguists,'slang' refers to the vocabulary typically used by a particular social group (for example, army slang or Cockney rhyming slang). In the extracts young people sometimes use words or phrases that are typical of Multicultural London English (for example, Angela in her story about Street Trouble).