Author logo Structural features of speech

Speech and writing
Transcribing spoken data
Concepts for describing speech
Speech and language as system
Conversational maxims
Speech acts
Felicity conditions
Names and addresses
Face and politeness strategies
Phatic tokens
Taking turns
Essential features of speech
Further reading

This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science. For a more detailed explanation, see the guide to Pragmatics on this site.


In answering questions at Advanced level, you will have opportunities to interpret language data, which are included in the exam paper. These may be transcripts of spoken data. You must prepare by practising with examples you find for yourself, or with those which your teacher provides. This guide should help you identify appropriate features of spoken English.

Speech and writing

The outward difference between speech and writing is a source of much confusion. Mistaken or "flat earth" views about language appear when we apply to speech inappropriate prescriptive ideas about formal written language. However, it is equally mistaken to suppose that speech has no grammar or distinctive structures and forms – it has.

Speech is historically prior to writing, and most people speak long before they are literate. But written English is often seen as more prestigious. Here are some reasons for this attitude:

  • teachers don't teach people to speak, but do teach (most of) them to read
  • writing is an important medium for advanced and higher education
  • literature lends its prestige to the written form in which it is published
  • writing is used by rulers, bureaucrats and lawyers to record, publish and enact important decisions, laws and treaties
  • spoken English is often spontaneous, while written texts (especially those which are published) are more tidy, structured and subject to editorial revision
  • in the past the literate were more or less identical with those who enjoyed power, wealth and prestige – for many people, writing retains this supposed superiority
  • early studies of language were based on written texts – it is only recently that linguists have described the patterns and structures which characterize speech

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However, if either deserves to be called the "real" or original form of the language it is speech. For centuries, in which most ordinary people were technically illiterate, spoken English enabled them to carry out all the business of their daily lives. In the 20th century the development of efficient and inexpensive recording technologies has made it possible for speech to be reliably recorded. Already we see the results of this:

  • in England and Wales, children learn (and are assessed in) speaking and listening under the National Curriculum
  • younger people seem less concerned than their elders with standard spelling forms
  • spoken presentations are used in business to promote teamwork
  • audio and video recording technologies are used to record proceedings in courts, in council chambers and in parliament
  • new technologies such as telephony, voice-mail and video-conferencing mean that spoken interaction is no longer restricted by geography

It may well be that in the 21st century, speech will no longer be seen as the poor relation of writing, or its less educated precursor. In reality, we use both, but usually we need each for specific purposes. In studying English, you should learn about the underlying grammar of all texts, spoken and written. But you should also learn about structural features specific to each.

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Transcribing spoken data

You are not likely to have to do this in your exam – so long as the paper is written. (This seems odd – foreign language exams require you to listen to audio recordings.) In the language investigation you may need to transcribe data for the examiner. You are very likely, in your written exam, to face questions in which you are given transcripts of spoken data. If you know the conventions for recording these, then you can interpret the transcript.

There are special symbols for transcribing sound (phonetic alphabets). You will see these in your exam only if the question requires you to comment on the features of sound (phonology) which these symbols show. Similarly, there are symbolic ways to show suprasegmental features of language (such as stress, pitch, intonation and tempo). Again, you are likely to see this kind of representation only if the question requires you to explain these features. Suprasegmental means "above the segments" that is, above the level of structure in a sentence – they are not features of the grammar, but may help convey semantic information (such as distinguishing a statement from a question, when the syntax is in a declarative form).

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Important concepts for describing speech

As you begin to explore features of spoken language, you should be aware of these concepts:

  • thinking aloud
  • deictics – making sure the listener knows what, where and to whom an utterance refers; unambiguous use of pronouns such as it, this and that.
  • pauses, repetitions, use of fillers
  • affective (to do with feeling) features – expression of emotion, doubt, confidence
  • establishment (or not) of interpersonal relationship
  • rτle of intonation in stating, implying, reinforcing
  • types of utterance (statement, question, command, exclamation)

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How speech relates to language as system

  • Lexis – individual speaker may make different lexical choices in speech and writing, or for particular speech contexts. Note special registers for these.
  • Phonology – suprasegmental features of speech give information akin or comparable to that signalled by punctuation in written texts.
  • Grammar – there is common underlying grammar but different surface features (for example, word classes are common to both but sentence forms will differ; speech will make more frequent use of disjointed forms, minor sentences and phrases).
  • Semantics – implication, irony and ambiguity can be signalled in speech by body language, facial expression, gesture and suprasegmental features.
  • Discourse – use of set patterns or recognizable forms (A man walks into a pub or Once upon a time)
  • Pragmatics – understanding unwritten or implicit rules of speech interactions

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Conversational maxims

The success of a conversation depends upon the various speakers' approach to the interaction. The way in which people try to make conversations work is sometimes called a co-operative principle. This can be explained by four underlying rules or maxims. (They are also named Grice's maxims, after the language philosopher, H.P. Grice.) They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance and manner.

  • Quality – speakers should tell the truth. They should not say what they think is false, or make statements for which they lack evidence.
  • Quantity – a contribution should be as informative as is required for the conversation to proceed. It should be neither too little, nor too much. (It is not clear how one can decide what quantity of information satisfies the maxim in a given case.)
  • Relevance – speakers' contributions should relate clearly to the purpose of the exchange.
  • Manner – speakers' contributions should be perspicuous: clear, orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

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Speech acts

The philosopher J.L. Austin (1911-1960) claims that many utterances are equivalent to actions. When someone says: "I name this ship" or "I now pronounce you man and wife", the utterance creates a new social or psychological reality. Such utterances can be analysed using a threefold distinction: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.

  • Locutionary acts – these are simply the speech acts which have taken place.
  • Illocutionary acts – these refer to the real actions which are performed by the utterance, where saying equals doing, as in betting, plighting one's troth, welcoming and warning.
  • Perlocutionary acts – these refer to the effect of the utterance on the listener, who accepts the bet or pledge of marriage, is welcomed or warned.

Some linguists have attempted to classify illocutionary acts into a number of categories or types. David Crystal, quoting J.R. Searle, gives five such categories:

  • Representatives – the speaker is committed to the truth of a proposition: affirm, believe, conclude, deny, report
  • Directives – the speaker tries to get the hearer to do something: ask, challenge, command, dare, insist, request
  • Commissives – the speaker is committed to a (future) course of action: guarantee, pledge, promise, swear, vow
  • Expressives – the speaker expresses an attitude about a state of affairs: apologize, deplore, congratulate, regret, thank, welcome
  • Declarations – the speaker alters the external status or condition of an object or situation, solely by making the utterance: I baptize you, I resign, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you be dead, I name this ship...

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Felicity conditions

These are conditions necessary to the success of a speech act. Only certain people are qualified to declare war, baptize others or sentence convicted felons. In some cases, the speaker must be sincere (as in apologizing or vowing). And external circumstances must be suitable: Will you shut the door? requires that the door be open, that the speaker has a reason for the request, and that the hearer is able to comply with it. It may be that the utterance is meant as a joke or sarcasm, in which case a different interpretation is in order.

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Names and addresses

Some languages have different forms for you (French tu/vous, German du/Sie, for example). These may originally have indicated number.Vous and Sie were and are used for plural forms, but now show different levels of formality, with tu and du being more familiar, vous and Sie more polite. In English this was shown historically by the contrast between you (formal/polite) and thou/thee (familiar). The thou (or T) form survives in some dialects, while other familiar forms are youse (Liverpool) and you-all/y'all (southern USA). This is known as a T/V system of address.

In this system the V form is a marker of politeness or deference. It may also be a marker of status, with the V form used to superiors, the T form to equals or inferiors. T forms are also used to express solidarity or intimacy. The T form is found in Shakespeare's plays, where it almost always shows the speaker's attitude to status and situation. A king is your majesty or you but a peasant is thou. It may be an insult, as when Tybalt addresses Romeo as thou. It is also found in "frozen" language forms, such as the stylized speech of Quakers or other non-comformist groups, like the Pennsylvania Amish, in orders of service and prayers. Oddly, many modern speakers think that thou (being archaic) is more formal than you – when the reverse is the case!

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In English, we also express status and attitude through titles, first names and last names. Titles are such things as Professor, Dr (Doctor), Sir, Dame, Fr. (Father), Mr, Mrs, Miss, Sr. (Sister). Note that we abbreviate some of these in writing (Mrs.), but not in speaking (missus). First names may be given names (Fred, Susan) but include epithets such as chief, guv, mate, man, pal. Last names are usually family names. In general, use of these on their own suggests lack of deference (Oi, Smith...) but in some contexts (public schools, the armed forces) they are norms. If one speaker uses title and last name (TLN), and the other first name (FN) only, we infer difference in status. The social superior (the FN speaker) may invite the inferior to use FN in response:

A: Professor Cringeworthy? B: Please call me Cuthbert.

In schools teachers use FN (or FNLN when reprimanding or being sarcastic) to pupils and receive T (Sir) or TLN (Miss Smith) in reply. Miss is addressed to women teachers, even where the speaker knows them to be married. For the speaker it expresses a sense of hierarchical rather than marital status.

In English avoidance of address is often acceptable – thus where French speakers say Bonsoir, Monsieur, English speakers may say merely Good evening.

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Face and politeness strategies

Face (as in lose face) refers to a speaker's sense of linguistic and social identity. Any speech act may impose on this sense, and is therefore face threatening. And speakers have strategies for lessening the threat. Positive politeness means being complimentary and gracious to the addressee (but if this is overdone, the speaker may alienate the other party). Negative politeness is found in ways of mitigating the imposition:

  • hedging: Er, could you, er, perhaps, close the, um , window?
  • pessimism: I don't suppose you could close the window, could you?
  • indicating deference: Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I asked you to close the window?
  • apologizing: I'm terribly sorry to put you out, but could close the window?
  • impersonalizing: The management requires all windows to be closed.

A good illustration of a breach of these strategies comes from Alan Bleasdale's TV drama, The Boys from the Black Stuff, where the unemployed Yosser Hughes greets potential employers with the curt demand: Gizza job!

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Phatic tokens

These are ways of showing status by orienting comments to oneself, to the other, or to the general or prevailing situation (in England this is usually the weather). Self-oriented phatic tokens are personal to the speaker: I'm not up to this, My feet are killing me. Other-oriented tokens are related to the hearer: Do you work here? You seem to know what you're doing. A neutral token refers to the context or general state of affairs: Cold, isn't it? Lovely flowers.

A superior shows consideration in an other-oriented token, as when the Queen says to the factory worker: It must be jolly hard to make one of those. The inferior might respond with a self-oriented token, like Hard work, this. On the surface, there is an exchange of information. In reality there is a suggestion and acceptance of a hierarchy of status.

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Taking turns

Conversations are based on speakers taking turns to make an utterance. Ideally, these come in adjacency pairs – an initiation or request for information meets an immediate response. There may also be feedback to express satisfaction or thanks.

Pupil: Will you look at my personal statement, sir?
Teacher: I'm teaching now, but come at lunchtime.
Pupil: Oh, thanks.
Teacher: Do you know what courses you want to apply for?
Pupil: Most of them, well I think so.
Teacher: Yes, and we're only in December.

The adjacency pairs are in the first two lines, and lines four and five. The feedback is in lines three and six. You can see how this simple model might be complicated by all sorts of interruptions. For example, another pupil arrives and asks (after Oh, thanks) for the teacher to fetch a colleague from the staffroom; the teacher looks in, tells the second pupil the other teacher is on the telephone, and so on.

There are various devices for claiming and keeping a turn. Dropping intonation may signal that a point is made, so a response is in order. Pauses for breath may also be taken as an opening. In order to keep the floor, a speaker may take breaths in the middle of a clause, rather than at the end of it. This is using an utterance incompletor to retain the speaking turn. Another device is to end a clause with a connective, such as and, therefore, so or but. Fillers such as er or um may be used to block others who wish to claim the turn.

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Essential features of speech

These are taken from a range of language authorities. Make sure you know what each term means, and that you are able to use this description in explaining spoken data in an exam.

  • Address
  • Affective features
  • Agenda
  • Adjacency pairs
  • Adverbials
  • Back-channelling
  • Backtracking
  • Closing conversation
  • Co-operative signals
  • Deictics
  • Disagreement
  • Facilitating mechanisms
  • Feedback
  • Fillers
  • Foregrounding
  • High considerateness/high involvement speakers
  • Humour
  • Implicatures (implication)
  • Introducing new topics
  • Metamessages
  • Monitoring talk
  • Opening conversation: request, question, offer
  • Overlap (co-operative)
  • Pauses
  • Rapport talk/report talk
  • Relevance
  • Repetition
  • Simultaneous speech
  • Tag questions
  • Turn-taking
  • Types of conversation: child/adult, gender related, power related (e.g. doctor-patient)
  • Uncompleted sentences
  • Utterance types: statement (declarative); question (interrogative); command (imperative); exclamation

These are listed in alphabetical order, but this is not the most obvious way to organize them schematically – try to produce your own models. There is no common agreed technical lexicon of terms to describe features of conversation – some of the terms are more or less synonymous (such as overlap and simultaneous speech).

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Sources of information

To find out more about the subject, please refer to any of the following authorities.

  • Howard Jackson and Peter Stockwell, The Nature and Functions of Language, Chapter 6, Stanley Thornes, ISBN 0-7487-2580-6
  • George Keith and John Shuttleworth, Living Language, Chapters 2 and 3, especially, pp. 41-47, 60-64; Oxford, ISBN 0-340-67343-5
  • Shirley Russell, Grammar, Structure and Style, pp. 110-116; Oxford, ISBN 0-19-831179-6
  • Susan Githens' account of Deborah Tannen's theories in Men and Women in Conversation is Cross-Cultural Communication.
    Follow the links at

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