University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia > You talking to me? Auxiliary realisation in spoken and written British English

You talking to me? Auxiliary realisation in spoken and written British English

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It is generally taken for granted by grammarians that every main clause contains a finite verb, whether the verb group is simple (he listens to her) or complex (he is listening to her). I used the British National Corpus (BNC) to investigate two types of periphrastic verb construction – the progressive and perfect – to see whether the ‘obligatory’ auxiliary verb is indeed always there, and whether its behaviour differs between spoken and written language.

The present study shows that at times the auxiliary verb is not supplied – for example, what we doing? instead of what are we doing? This non-suppliance occurs more frequently in the BNC ’s spoken section than the written. Within the spoken section there are differences according to formality of register. The properties of the construction are of some importance also, with apparent effects of tense, polarity, clause type and subject type. These factors interact so that the environment which associates most favourably with non-suppliance is the present tense second person subject interrogative construction – for example, you talking to me? in contrast to are you talking to me? In this specific construction, in the most casual register in the spoken section of the BNC , the auxiliary is absent in three out of every ten instances.

A range of semantic, phonological and syntactic factors condition the distribution of auxiliaries. This explains why auxiliary non-suppliance favours particular constructions and particular verbs, while there are constructions in which it cannot possibly occur, such as the past progressive and past perfect. This paper is framed in terms of the constructivist versus generative debate on the nature of language, favouring the former view that exemplars and not rules are fundamental. Through sociolinguistic analysis, it will be shown that age and class are significant factors in non-suppliance of the auxiliary, pointing to a change from below.

This talk is part of the RCEAL Tuesday Colloquia series.

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