LINGUIST List 32.3302

Wed Oct 20 2021

Review: English; Syntax: Haselow (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 17-Sep-2021
From: Ulrike Stange-Hundsdörfer <>
Subject: Spontaneous Spoken English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Alexander Haselow
TITLE: Spontaneous Spoken English
SUBTITLE: An Integrated Approach to the Emergent Grammar of Speech
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Ulrike Stange-Hundsdörfer, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz


“Spontaneous Spoken English” is an important textbook offering new perspectives on the perception of how and why spoken English is structured the way it is. Measured against the parameters of formal written English, the grammar of spoken English is often described as deficient and as lacking well-formed sentences. The author uses an Interfield Approach in which he combines methods and findings from three different research areas (viz. grammatical analysis, conversation analysis, cognitive psychology and neurolinguistics) to account for a range of phenomena observed in spontaneous speech (e.g., hesitation markers, interjections, formulaic language, “incomplete” sentences, restarts). The examples used to illustrate the phenomena in question are all taken from the ICE-GB conversational data (subsets S1A and S1B, private and public dialogues, c. 377,000 words). The aim of the book is worded as follows: “[…] the present study offers an analysis of empirical data of spontaneous spoken English in which the structural properties are explained from an emergentist perspective and linked to the cognitive conditions under which speech is produced, which include, above all, limitations in working memory capacity and the quasi-simultaneousness of speech planning and production” (p. 3).

1 Introduction (pp. 1-42)

In the first part of the introduction, the author presents the aim of the study, contrasting his novel approach with two established, predominant approaches to grammar (Saussurean and American structuralism, and Generative Grammar). He describes an alternative view on how “grammar” works in which “speakers […] create structure in a piecemeal way, based on moment-by-moment decisions on how to continue a syntactic trajectory underway, thereby creating structures that are not readily classifiable as the kinds of configurations postulated in sentence-based grammars” (p. 1). In his study, Haselow aims at explaining features observed in spoken data that elude categorisation using traditional grammatical concepts and at detecting patterns in the data that help understand the processes underlying the production of spontaneous speech. The second part of the introduction prepares the theoretical background for the study and provides relevant context for why it is important. The author first contrasts product-based and process-based views of grammar, highlighting how the written language bias (Linell 2005, 20009) influences our conception of what well-formed speech is. In a next step, Haselow describes the challenges involved when trying to apply grammatical modelling to spontaneous speech. Relevant examples include unintegrated expressions (e.g., interjections, vocatives, tags) as well as “disintegrated” and “defective” syntax (p. 15; e.g., elliptical replies, condensed questions, directives), where the sentences appear incomplete. The third part of the introduction is dedicated to grammatical dualism, viz. the assumption that speakers need to be able to process both adjacent linear sequences as well as hierarchically structured linear sequences. The concept of dualism thus refers to adjacency and hierarchy in linguistic processing. Furthermore, the author introduces the terms microgrammar and macrogrammar in an attempt to “account for the different ways in which smaller segments are combined into a coherent whole” (p. 25). Haselow briefly outlines previous research in which the (potentially) dual nature of grammar played a role and formulates the Grammatical Dualism Assumption, which states that “Linguistic processing and linguistic activity exhibit a dualistic organization, which is reflected in linguistic discourse. ‘Grammar’ [encompasses] two different domains, […] one dealing with the internal linearization and hierarchization, the other one with the organization of language based on cognitive, discourse-structural and interactive principles of language use outside hierarchically organized structures and on mere linearity” (p. 30). In the final part of the introduction, the author offers information regarding the data used and the methodology employed for the present study. He sketches the structure of the book and in the conclusion, he states that, from the perspective taken in this book, “the role of the speaker changes […] to one who performs a creative activity and whose agency affects the language system” (p. 41).

2 Toward an Interfield Approach to the Study of Spontaneous Speech (pp. 43-79)

In the second chapter, the author presents all three of the research fields that are considered in this Interfield Approach, including relevant theoretical frameworks. Haselow starts with Gidden’s (1984) Structuration Theory. Originally a sociological theory used to describe “human action in relation to social systems” (Haselow 2020: 44), it can also be applied to linguistics: “human beings acquire the system of a language […] as a by-product of socialization […]. As speakers, […] they contribute to structuration in the sense that they reinforce existing structures, but also alter them in minute ways” (p. 45), which also raises question where language variation and change are concerned.

Second, the author outlines Harris’ (2021) Integrationalist Theory, which offers a usage-based perspective on language. Rather than viewing language as a fairly fixed, rule-based system that all speakers follow blindly, this theory considers the language user and the communicative settings. Rules are conceived of as regularities or tendencies observed in language use, and speakers as performing creative acts when they use language.

Haselow prefaces the description of the three research fields relevant to his Interfield Approach (grammatical analysis – language as a system, conversation analysis – language as a means to organize conversational interaction, cognitive neuroscience of language – language as a window to the mind and the architecture of the brain) by a short section on the benefits and issues of using such a method. He then lists characteristics of spontaneous speech that have been identified in previous research, complete with short explanations and relevant examples where appropriate.

3 A Dualistic Approach to Grammar: Microgrammar and Macrogrammar (pp. 80-123)

In the third chapter, the author describes how “grammar” is conceptualized in the current approach, viz. as “a phenomenon emerging in the flow of time, based on moment-by-moment decisions taken by the speaker […]” (p. 84). Accordingly, descriptions of grammar should focus on the process rather than the product where speech production is concerned. The term Microgrammar is used to refer to linguistic structures (or “syntactic segments”, p. 89) that involve linearization and hierarchization, and which, depending on the context, may resemble, e.g., phrases or clauses as we know them from ‘traditional’ grammar. The term ‘macrogrammar’ is used to describe “forms and distributional patterns that are not involved in and determined by binary hierarchical relationships” (p. 99). Relevant macrogrammatical expressions include, for instance, interjections (wow), cognitive planning markers (uhm) and general extenders (and stuff). It is argued that the occurrence of macrogrammatical expressions coincides with a variety of communicative tasks that arise during the production of speech. These are concerned with cognition (e.g., the use of fillers to gain planning time for the next stretch of speech), text-organization (e.g., the use of transitions to link syntactic segments) and the relationship between speaker and addressee (e.g., the use of vocatives to attract the addressee’s attention) and may occur in three different temporal phases (initial, continuing/mid, final) of a unit of talk. In speech, both microgrammar and macrogrammar are at work (hence the dualistic nature of the emergent grammar of speech) in that microgrammatical expressions (syntactically integrated expressions with hierarchical relationships) alternate with macrogrammatical expressions (whose forms and distributions are determined by the communicative tasks at hand) in order “to produce structured speech that can be understood by the addressee” (p. 117). In a way, microgrammatical expressions are the bricks and macrogrammatical expressions the mortar to build communication bridges from one speaker to the next.

4 Linearization and Macrogrammatical Fields (pp. 124-208)

In Chapter Four, the author presents an analysis of so-called ‘fields’`. Depending on their occurrence in time during a unit of talk, they are referred to as initial, medial or final fields. They coincide with specific communicative functions and may host a variety of macrogrammatical expressions which are listed and explained using concrete examples from the corpus. As relevant communicative tasks differ depending on where we zoom in on the production of a unit of talk, we find distributional patterns as regards which macrogrammatical expressions are likely to occur at which point (e.g., vocatives typically occur in the initial or the final field). The author describes the functions of the different fields and provides process-based explanations for the distribution of the different kinds of macrogrammatical expressions.

5 Macrogrammar and the Linearization of Structural Segments (pp. 209-261)

The fifth chapter is concerned with the processability of speech and how this relates to the observed linearization of structural segments. In spontaneous speech, efficient real-time processing is necessary to allow for successful communication on both the speaker’s and the addressee’s side. The author explores three major principles of efficiency in real-time syntactic processing: minimal structures (aka ellipses; e.g. Isn’t this soup delicious? – It is.), chaining syntactic segments (viz. creating transitions between different, syntactically autonomous units), structural units based on far-reaching projections (i.e., structures that consist of two parts that are complete only if both segments are verbalized; e.g., when …, then …). Accordingly, both microgrammar and macrogrammar play a role here: the former provides the contents, and the latter organises the narrative into a coherent whole, taking into consideration the different communicative tasks that are relevant for each phase in a unit of talk. Again, the author uses clear examples throughout the chapter to illustrate the different principles at work.

6 Neurolinguistic Evidence for the Grammatical Dualism Assumption (pp. 262-287)

Chapter Six explores the question whether macrogrammar and microgrammar are processed in different areas of the brain, given that there is evidence that the two hemispheres (right hemisphere – RH; left hemisphere – LH) are involved in different language functions. The author first sketches what is known about linguistic representation in the brain, citing relevant studies, and then proceeds to discuss the differences between novel and formulaic speech and the implications these differences have for neurolinguistic activity (creativity vs. routine). It appears that novel speech (associated with microgrammatical expressions) involves LH-activity, and formulaic speech (associated with macrogrammatical expressions) RH-activity, which provides further (physical) substance to the concept of Dualistic Grammar. Of course, the boundaries between novel and formulaic speech are not always clear cut, and the attribution of different language functions to specific brain areas is not a matter of black and white, but there is variation, too. This chapter also contains more information about the role of the RH in discourse organization and the organization of speaker-addressee interaction, which are aspects of macrogrammar. It concludes with some critical remarks on the nature of neurolinguistic evidence, as there is a need for more research to verify the association between RH/macrogrammar and LH/microgrammar.

7 Conclusions (pp. 288-295)

In the last chapter, the author summarizes the main points of the book, stressing the inadequacy of “traditional categories and concepts of sentence-based syntactic description” (p. 288) when applied to spoken English. By expanding the notion of grammar to also include ‘unintegrated’ segments, it is possible to explain the structures observed in spoken English (p. 288). The Grammatical Dualism Assumption formulated early on in the book has proved a valuable concept to account for the grammar of spoken English. In essence, the Emergent Grammar of Speech is characterised by macrogrammar and microgrammar. The former is concerned with the organisation of text, text cohesion, speaker-oriented aspects, and holding the floor-activities (all of which are associated with neuronal activity in the right hemisphere (RH)), while microgrammar covers what we commonly refer to as “sentences”, “clauses” and “phrases” (these are associated with neuronal activity in the left hemisphere (LH)). The author also raises two points of critique (the full potential of the interfield approach might not have been fulfilled and, in some places, the analysis was not process-based but rather product-based) and provides suggestions for further research.


Given the nature of the topic and the selection of an interfield approach, the contents of the book are rather complex. Having said this, it is written in a very accessible way, important aspects are repeated again and again (to the extent that all of the seven chapters could also be read in isolation without missing out on any crucial information), and the examples (of which there are plenty to help the reader understand the matters at hand) are explained in detail. As a result, it is suitable both for linguistics students (advanced undergraduate or postgraduate) and linguists (no matter the preferred research area). In fact, I’d say this is required reading for all linguists because this book not only offers a plausible and practical approach to the analysis of the grammar of spoken English, but it also fosters tolerance towards the ‘anomalies’ of spoken English that are often cast aside as irrelevant or errors, etc. This book clearly shows how everything the speaker produces is there for a reason (typically either because it contributes meaningful discourse or because it serves a communicative function) and it helps us understand how speech production in real-time works, which constraints are relevant (e.g., working memory) and which strategies (efficiency principles, communicative tasks) underly the distribution of macrogrammatical structures to put order in what seems chaotic. The author’s aim was to “offer[] an analysis of empirical data of spontaneous spoken English in which the structural properties are explained from an emergentist perspective and linked to the cognitive conditions under which speech is produced, which include, above all, limitations in working memory capacity and the quasi-simultaneousness of speech planning and production” (p. 3), and he has definitely achieved this aim. Furthermore, this book presents “an alternative to such ‘fixed-code’ approaches to language, questioning the assumption that categories exist prior to concrete uses of language and highlighting the openness and the emergent character of structure that derives from the speaker’s creativity” (p. 292). In sum, a highly recommendable book!


Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Oxford: Polity Press.

Linell, Per. 2005. The written language bias in linguistics: Its nature, origins and transformations. New York: Routledge.

Linell, per. 2009. Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically: Interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Ulrike Stange-Hundsdörfer is a lecturer/assistant professor at the JGU in Mainz, Germany, where she instructs prospective teachers of English as a foreign language in the intricacies of English. Her research interests are sparked by encounters with “oddities” in the English language, such as the use of pseudo-passives in British English and innovative uses of the intensifier so. She is the author of Emotive Interjections in British English (Benjamins, 2016) and holds a Ph.D. in English Linguistics from the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz, Germany.

Page Updated: 20-Oct-2021