Aspects of spoken English

Aspects of spoken English


Compared to written English, spoken English is both more and less clear.

When reading a piece of written English, all the information in the communication is in the text. It is usually presented in a finished state and contains full, grammatically complete sentences. Some care will have been taken to structure and present the document effectively. The needs of the reader will have been considered to some extent. The document exists in a permanent form and can be read at leisure as many times as necessary.

By contrast, when speaking English with another person the meaning of the dialogue only emerges gradually. The conversation is likely to be filled with unfinished sentences, interruptions, repetitions, pauses and meaningless phrases and words (such as ‘er’, ‘um’, ‘you know?’, ‘if you see what I mean’). The course of the dialogue is unpredictable and infinitely flexible.

However, when speaking English with another person you receive all kinds of clues, which cannot be found in written English, as to what the other person is really thinking or feeling. These include:

  body language;

  tone of voice;

  vocal emphasis (sometimes called stress).

When you are involved in a conversation with another person you instinctively read the meaning of these clues. You also give such clues to the person you are speaking to.

Conversation also allows you to use a range of techniques which can only be used to a limited extent in writing. These include:




  rhetorical questions;

  open questions;

  narrow and closed questions;

  simple or conditional forms;

  choice of terminology;

  diplomatic language;

  metaphors and similes.

These issues are discussed in detail below at 14.5.


Body language refers to the way in which people show their feelings by body movements or positions. While it is relatively easy to control your speech, controlling your body language is remarkably difficult. For this reason, it is well worth paying attention to the body language of the people you are talking to – it will tell you a lot about how they feel about what you are saying. Perhaps most significantly, a careful reading of someone’s body language will tell you whether what they feel or think differs from what they say they feel or think.

When considering body language, it is worth bearing in mind that the culture from which a person comes will have some effect on the way they use body language. To take an obvious example, an Italian negotiator is much more likely than a Finnish negotiator to use expansive arm and hand gestures.

In addition, certain aspects of body language have defined meanings in particular cultures. For example, in Pakistan extending a clenched fist towards someone represents an obscene insult. If an American executive leans back in his chair and links his fingers behind his head while speaking to you this is probably a bad sign. It means that he has decided that he does not need to demonstrate eagerness or attention towards you.

Some examples of body language, together with their possible meanings are given below.

Arms crossed. This usually represents defensiveness, arrogance, dislike or disagreement.

Eyebrows raised. Raised eyebrows generally mean uncertainty, disbelief, surprise or exasperation.

Fist clenched. A clenched fist usually accompanies an aroused emotional state (e.g. anger or fear). In a business meeting a clenched fist often denotes anxiety or unstated disagreement.

Hands on hips. This usually indicates a preparedness to take action (e.g. to take charge of the organisation of an event). It may also be used to signal a threat against others, or defensiveness against a perceived threat.

Hands behind head. This usually reflects negative thoughts or feelings. It can be taken as a sign of uncertainty, conflict, disagreement, frustration or anger.

Head tilted back. When someone has their head tilted back and is looking at you down their nose, this is a clear sign that they feel themselves to be superior to you.

Head tilted to one side. This can mean different things according to the situation in which it is used. It often indicates friendliness and rapport (for example in the course of negotiations). It may also be a gesture of submissiveness (when showing respect to a superior). It can also be used to show coyness (when flirting).

Looking down. This usually accompanies feelings of defeat, guilt, shame or submission. It may indicate that the person is lying.

Palm down. A gesture made in which the hand is extended with the palm tilted down is usually a sign of confidence, assertiveness or dominance.

Palm up. A gesture made in which the hands are extended with the palm tilted up is usually a sign of friendliness, permissiveness or humility. It represents non-aggressiveness and vulnerability. A gesture in which both hands are extended together with the palms up can simply mean, ‘I don’t know’.

Shoulder shrug. A shrugged shoulder is usually a sign of uncertainty and submissiveness. It can simply mean, ‘I don’t know’.

Steeple. The steeple involves the placing together of the fingertips of both hands whilst speaking or listening. It is generally used to show that somebody is listening thoughtfully or thinking deeply.

Stroking chin. This gesture usually indicates that someone is considering a point.


A lot can be learned about someone’s attitude or mood by the tone in which they speak.

This of course does not register in written English. Attitude or mood in written English can usually only be ascertained from specific statements, and even then it is hard to differentiate between genuine expressions of attitude and conventional formal expressions. For example, the phrase ‘we are pleased to send you the documents you requested’ tells you nothing about whether the writer is really pleased or not.