Sunday, 29 December 2013

Using grammar to create a good relationship

Michael McCarthy
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Cambridge English Teacher and presented by Michael McCarthy.  He should have been joined by Anne O'Keefe, but unfortunately technical issues meant she was unable to connect.  What follows is a summary of what Michael had to say.

Grammar is more than just a set of abstract rules - it can be used to create appropriate relationships:
  • Forms of address (sir, madam, mate, etc.)
  • Formal vocabulary (e.g. we wish to advise you....)
  • Hedging and vagueness (e.g. a bit hungry, hungry-ish)
  • Indirectness (e.g. one shouldn't worry, it is hoped that....)
  • Using tense, aspect and modality (e.g. I wondered..., I should be grateful...)
  • Involvement strategies/use of pronouns - ways of making the person you're talking to feel more part of the topic of conversation
  • Ellipsis (e.g. want some coffee? you ready?)
Corpus evidence
  • Cambridge English Corpus - 2 billion words
  • CANCODE Spoken Corpus - 5 million words (mostly informal speech)
  • Cambridge Learner Corpus - 5 million words
  • CANBEC Spoken Business English Corpus - 1 million words
  • CLAS Spoken Professional/Academic Corpus - 1 million words taken from a hotel management context in Ireland
These corpora give us the evidence to understand how grammar is used.  Where grammar gives us choices, the choice you make affects how your spoken or written word is received.  Look at this example which goes from direct to less direct and, therefore, more polite:
  • Where's the key?
  • I hope you've got the key.
  • I was hoping you had the key.
Or this example:
  • I wonder if you can help me?
  • I'm wondering if you could help me?
  • I was wondering if you could help me?
All of these sentences are grammatically correct, but small changes affect the degree of politeness.

Some verbs are more polite and less direct when used in the continuous form (present or past).  For example:
  • Are you needing something?
  • I was wondering if I could ask you a question?
  • I was hoping you'd come to visit.
  • We were thinking we should finish this by Friday.
Look at this example in context:

or this one:
Customers and servers work hard from the beginning to set an appropriate relationship.
Use of pronouns (we versus you)
Choice of pronouns can create closeness or distance.  In this example, the salesperson uses 'you' and 'your' to make the customer feel involved - almost as if he owns the item already:

In this example, we see the pronoun of involvement used in an academic setting - a hotel and catering college:
Modality can express degrees of formality and degrees of imposition.
Looking at corpora for incidences of 'can I ...?' and 'could I ...?', we see a huge difference in the number of times these are used in spoken informal English.  We can also see that there are no examples in Cancode of 'might I ...?' being used.  Corpus enables us to see the degree of formality these forms express, but also in what context they're used.
Ellipsis, the non-use of items normally considered obligatory, in conversation reinforces directness and closeness.  For example:
To conclude:
Incorrect choices can project the wrong relationship in terms of the degrees of directness and imposition.  The grammar discussed in this webinar is all very common and is normally taught at low levels, but we need to look at it again at higher levels to explore the subtleties.  Good teaching materials should include this grammar of choice to enable students to communicate effectively.


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