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Cristina Pennarola » 7.An overview of spoken English

An overview of spoken English

Lesson Plan

  • Spoken genres
  • Interview vs. conversation
  • The genre of conversation
  • Phatic talk
  • Dynamics of conversation
  • Linguistic features of conversation
  • Speech acts
  • Directness and indirectness
  • The speaker’s face

Spoken genres

A genre is a particular class of communicative events presenting similar structure, style and content (Swales 1990: 58). In the past, the concept of genre was mainly associated with rhetoric and literary criticism, but today, with the development of linguistic studies, it is examined in relation to language use and second language learning. In fact, knowing the conventions of specific or common-use genres can help language learners to better replicate some discursive practices and also use more appropriate language.

We can distinguish various genres of spoken language, depending on the situational context, including the medium of communication (telephone, computer,TV etc.), the speakers’ aims (socialising, informing, persuading, criticising etc) and the relationship between speakers (friendly or distant):

  • Conversation
  • Interview
  • Telephone call
  • Political speech
  • Lecture
  • TV news

Interview vs. Conversation

Interview: an occasion when somebody is asked questions about their life and opinions.


  • Two participants
  • Specific aim
  • Informative function
  • Neatly delimited exchanges (question and answer)

Conversation: an informal occasion in which people exchange news and ideas.


  • Two or more participants
  • No specific aim
  • Socialising function
  • Overlapping talk

The genre of conversation

Conversation is usually:

  • spontaneous: people do not fix a time for chatting but engage in conversation casually, without planning
  • unrehearsed: the participants in a conversation do not practise their speech as actors do
  • synchronous: a conversation takes place in real time
  • face to face: speakers usually speak to each other in the same place unless some technology like computer, web cam or telephone allows them to comunicate from a distance
  • purpose-driven: speakers have an objective in mind (for example, socialising, exchanging information, gossiping, asking for advice, etc)
  • interactive: speakers alternate – if only one of them were to be dominant, it would be a monologue, not a conversation

Phatic talk

Many of our exchanges do not have a real purpose but are meant to create a pleasant atmosphere and establish rapport. Especially in some situations, for example in the small space of a lift, people tend to feel embarassed if they do not exchange at least a few words on some unimportant topic. Usually the weather seems to be the safest topic of conversation; maybe, it is not very interesting whether “it’s beeen raining for days” or “it’s finally getting warmer”, but everybody is affected by the weather and capable of commenting on it.

Also enquiries after somebody’s health may be an attempt at creating a good atmosphere and being polite, rather than meant to elicit information. In fact, we do not really expect our interlocutor to respond to the opening “How are you?” by giving a full account of their health problems.

This way of using language for socialising rather than for a transactional purpose is called phatic.

Listen to James talking about the weather at

Take notice that in this case, besides the phatic element “Let’s talk about something”, there is also an informative core “What’s the weather like in Japan?”

The dynamics of conversation

A conversation is usually very lively with many different contributions in a generally orderly sequence. It is the speakers who regulate the flow and sequence of contributions according to the following moves:

  • Turn-taking: participants offer contributions at appropriate moments with no breaks or overlaps
  • Holding the floor: the speaker doesn’t let others interrupt his/her speech

However, there may be at times some minor disruption when people talk over each other and their voices overlap.

Features of conversation

Listen to the conversation between Crystal and George at
Take notice of:

  • repetitions
  • pauses
  • inarticulate or inaudible sounds
  • interactional markers (for example, right, well)
  • informal words or expressions (for example, low on cash, hanging around)

Features of conversation

Conversation is characterised by:

  • Hesitations or pauses: we are looking for words or we don’t know exactly what to say next
  • False starts: as we speak, we may feel the need to change the start of the sentence
  • Fillers: words such as erm, you see, you know, see what I mean, right are meant to fill in the gaps in conversation
  • Ellipsis: some grammatical elements like auxiliaries and pronouns may be dropped (example: feeling tired?)
  • Paratactic structure: we tend to juxtapose sentences by using the and linker, rather than create long and complex sentences with subordinate clauses
  • Frequency of indexicals: these are adverbs and pronouns whose reference depends on the situational context. Words like I, we, you, today, tomorrow, here, there refer to different items depending on who is using them and when and where they’re being used
  • Vague language: a way of referring to people and events in general terms (example, sort of, kind of, so to speak, stuff like that, etc)

Speech acts

A speech act is an utterance, that is a stretch of language, which results in some kind of action.


I’m going to help you.
I’ll give you my course notes.
The Prime Minister has declared a state of war.

Directness vs. Indirectness

Spoken language is characterised by varying degrees of directness.


  • Move out of the way, please!
  • You’re standing in front of the TV.

Both utterances are produced in the same context: somebody in front of a television set prevents other people from watching their favourite programme. However, the tone is dramatically different: the first one is direct and even blunt, while the second is more indirect and polite.
Let’s examine the second utterance more closely.
You’re standing in front of the TV.
This looks like a statement with an informative core but it is an indirect request to move away from the TV screen.

Directness vs. Indirectness

In our everyday exchanges we very often use indirect language. Can you point out the implicit messages conveyed by the sentences below?.
It is very cold in here = Can you close the window? Or Can you turn up heating? (implicit meanings)

  1. Your room is in a mess.
  2. Are you busy tonight?
  3. I am very bad at making new friends.
  4. Why don’t you make a move?
  5. It is really late.
  6. Do you need your car tonight?
  7. The garbage hasn’t been emptied yet.
  8. I can’t find my glasses nowhere.
  9. I have two tickets for the concert.

Directness vs. Indirectness


  1. Your room is in a mess = Will you tidy it up?
  2. Are you busy tonight? = Shall we go out tonight?
  3. I am very bad at making new friends = Would you care to be my friend?
  4. Why don’t you make a move? = Hurry up!
  5. It is really late = Hurry up!
  6. Do you need your car tonight? = Can you lend me your car tonight?
  7. The garbage hasn’t been emptied yet = Can you empty the garbage?
  8. I can’t find my glasses nowhere = Have you seen my glasses?
  9. I have two tickets for the concert = Would you like to come to the concert with me?

The speaker’s face

The choice of directness or indirectness may depend on the speaker’s face: this is the public self-image of a person, referring to the social, emotional and interpersonal sense of self. Each of us has two opposite faces:
Positive face: the need to be accepted, and liked by others, to be treated as a member of the same group.
Negative face: the need to be independent, to have freedom of action, and not to be imposed on by others. (see Yule 1996: 60-62).
Depending on which face we put up, we can be more direct and outspoken or more indirect and tentative.


  • I’ll take your car, is that okay?: direct approach, positive face.
  • I was wondering whether you could lend me your car: indirect approach, negative face.

Excuse me, Mr.Buckingham, but can I talk to you for a minute?: indirect approach, negative face
Hey, Bucky, got a minute?
: direct approach, positive face.

I materiali di supporto della lezione

S. Cornbleet, R. Carter, 2001, The Language of Speech and Writing, London, Routledge.

J. M. Swales, 1990, Genre Analysis. English in academic and research settings, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

G. Yule, 1996, Pragmatics, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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