Phrases in Discourse

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3.2.2 Phrases in Use

On pages 39-40, we can see samples of 2 very different types of discourse. The first sample is from the conversation register and the second from a newspaper report. Here are the first 4 lines from each to remind us of what we've seen in the complete set:


A: Is that [the time]?
B. Yeah, it's [twenty minutes to four].
C. Oh [my clock] is slow, yeah.
B: [Do] you [want] us [to) just (go) out there and come back and pick [you guys] up?

Newspaper report:

[Radioactive leak] confirmed [at Sellafield]
[Work on the dismantling of a nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield] caused [a leak of radioactivity] yesterday. [British Nuclear Fuels Ltd] said [the radioactivity] reached [the air][through a chimney stack which was still in use].

What do we learn about the use of phrases by looking at these two samples: 1. All uses of English will involve uses of phrases. Words have to be combined into larger chunks to use for communication. 2. But those combinations are different for different purposes. Here's the analysis by the authors of the Longman Student Grammar:

Generally, the news story has longer phrases as well as a larger number of multi-word phrases. In fact, in the conversation sample, almost three-quarters of the phrases are only one word long, while there is only one phrase that contains four or more words. (p. 40)

Then, they continue and show us another important difference: the newspaper article has more embedded phrases....more use of phrases inside of other phrases to make up those long connections of words. Let's look at the sample in their Figure 3.3 and then think about what this information means for us as ESL/EFL teachers.

Embedding & Graphical Systems

Figure 3.3 has two important purposes.

First, the authors want us to see what a long complicated phrase can look like. They analyze a noun phrase from the newspaper article. The head noun is work. Then that head noun is followed by 3 prepositional phrases.

Notice this about prepositional phrases: the basic structure is a preposition followed by a noun phrase (as its complement). Because it ends with a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase can easily allow the addition of another prepositional phrase...noun + preposition + noun + preposition + noun. Prepositional phrases are a linguistic device for creating exact, complicated noun phrases.

Head noun: work

1st prepositional phrase: on the dismantling

2nd prepositional phrase: of a nuclear reprocessing plant

3rd prepositional phrase: at Sellafield

What's going on? work

What kind of work? dismantling

Dismantling what? dismantling of a nuclear reprocessing plant

Where's that plant: at Sellafield

Of course we can say that mouthful but the tendency is for conversational language not to have that type of complexity. Such a phrase could be found in a lecture or scripted television news but conversation between friends tends to move along with a different approach to phrases


Figure 3.3


The authors have a second goal for Figure 3.3. They are still showing us how they intend to mark examples to indicate the internal grammatical structure of the sample. They plan to use 2 systems: (a) They will use square brackets to mark off word groups as in the example at the bottom of the figure. Notice that piling up of ]]]]] at the end! Why's that? The first bracket marks [work] and then another bracket set is added for [on the dismantling of a nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield] it becomes [work [on the dismantling of a nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield]]. Then as each sub-set is bracketed the bracket set at the end builds up.

The authors will also use a graphical system called "trees." That's shown with the top part with each grammatical category labeled and then a line drawn down to connect the label to the words that represent that grammatical category. Each level down shows a sub-piece of this large noun phrase that is made up of a head noun followed by 3 prepositional phrases (and therefore by 3 additional noun phrases).

Both systems will be used in the book. Both can be useful. Both have their limits. You can see one of the limits right here in this example. There's a very close relationship between the noun dismantling and the preposition of. They very often come together, and we can consider them a unit: In the Bank of English, a general corpus of 450,000,000 words, dismantling is used 1573 times; dismantling of is used 587 times or 37% of the uses of dismantling. The relationship is close. But how to mark it? Neither graphical system handles this type of information. We need to keep in mind what the systems can do for us....and what they cannot do.

Why This Information Matters to ESL/EFL Teachers

"The simplest structures occur in conversation and the complexity increases through fiction and newspaper writing, with academic writing showing the greatest complexity of phrase structure." (p. 40)

This information about the use of phrases in different discourse types goes to the heart of what you need to learn this semester: how we use the basic resources of English grammar and vocabulary for real communication. We are still teaching ESL/EFL as if English was the same in all uses. That is just not accurate and not helpful for our students.

Teachers are rightfully careful and even, I know, cynical about "the latest theory." Theories do seem to come and go about what we have to do in class for our students. I'm not offering you "theory" but data and a method for gathering more data. You need to know about the language that your students need to learn. You can do that by studying the research produced by people like Biber and Conrad. You can also produce that information yourself by investigating the uses to which your students will put their English and then finding out about the features of those uses for English.

I look forward to hearing from you, especially about aspects of the grammar or the textbook's explanation of the grammar that you find confusing.  Please send your comments and questions to me at