Tuesday, March 8, 2011



The Sentences in spoken language are more problematic than in written language. Speakers take turns to speak, and turns are a basic unit of conversation. A turn ends when the speaker changes. Many turns in everyday speech consist of long strings of clauses (e.g. when someone is telling a story), unfinished sentences, or just noun phrases, adjective phrases or adverb phrases standing alone. We also find yes, no, interjections and other miscellaneous word-types standing alone, or sentences ‘jointly constructed’ by more than one speaker. A typical transcript of everyday conversation contains many complete and communicatively sufficient units which are not sentences:[speaker A is telling speaker B about a computer problem] 1 A: But he’s trying to send us an email and I’m having some trouble with the computer you see.2 B: Right.3 A: You know.4 B: Yeah.5 A: On my computer when I try to get anything on it.6 B: Mm.7 A: It’s just saying that it’s not in the files. I don’t know if …8 B: Mm.9 A: And I’ll have to get a disk.Speakers often begin new topics or sub-topics with conjunctions such as but (turn 1) and and (turn 9), even after considerable silences. A turn may consist of just a word or phrase indicating a response or acknowledgement (turns 2 and 4). It may not be clear which independent unit a dependent unit is attached to. The prepositional phrase in turn 5 could be treated as attached to turn 1 or turn 7, or simply as a free-standing and communicatively self-sufficient element.The ‘sentence’ is therefore a problematic concept to apply to oral communication.


Problems with identifying sentences in informal spoken language mean that it is often useful to distinguish between a sentence and an utterance.The sentence is a unit of grammar, and must be grammatically complete (i.e. it must have at least one main clause). The utterance is a unit of communication. It must be communicatively and pragmatically complete, but it does not need to be grammatically complete. Communicative means that the utterance communicates a meaningful message, and pragmatic means that it is fully interpretable in its context. Thus a string of words standing alone such as over to you, though not a sentence, can be communicative and pragmatically interpretable (e.g. telling someone it’s their turn to take over the main speaking role), while a string of words such as you if on is unlikely to be either communicatively or pragmatically adequate.Right and you know (turns 2 and 3 in the conversation extract in 272a), although they are not grammatically sentences, are complete utterances since each one is communicatively and pragmatically complete.However, in spoken language the general principles for combining clauses can still be seen to operate in broad terms (but 87b Subordinate clauses).

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