Subordination in Spoken and Written English

A Corpus-based Study

funded by

Ref: R 000 27 1083
Institution: University College London
Department: Department of English (Survey of English Usage)
Investigator: Dr Gerald Nelson
Period: 1 June 1999 to 31 May 2001

Aims and objectives

Subordination is generally considered to be an index of structural complexity in language, and as such is centrally important in the study of differences between speech and writing. Subordination in English has been extensively studied in the past (O'Donnell, 1974, Tannen, 1982, Beaman, 1984, Thompson, 1984) but for a variety of reasons, previous research has yielded puzzlingly contradictory results (Biber, 1988: 50). This is best illustrated by the work of Halliday (1989, 1994) and Chafe (1986). According to Halliday, in spoken English "the sentence structure is highly complex, reaching degrees of complexity that are rarely attained in writing (Halliday,1994: xxiv). Chafe holds a contrary view, and attributes the greater complexity of writing to the writer's ability to plan and re-draft.

Our research programme starts from the premise that both of these views cannot be correct, though we acknowledge from the outset that much depends on how "complexity" is defined. We accept, too, Biber's conclusions that previous research has suffered from at least two serious deficiencies:

i. assigning undue weight to individual samples, so that overall results may be skewed by just one idiosyncratic sample.

ii. assigning undue weight to the genres under analysis. (Biber, 1988: 52-3)

The present study has been designed to address these issues:

i. This study is based on the whole ICE-GB corpus, a one million-word corpus containing 1,001 individual samples. This is the largest number of samples ever used in a study of subordination.

ii. As Biber points out (1988: 53-4), most previous studies have examined just two genres, one each from speech and writing, and on that basis have attempted to draw general conclusions about variation between the modes. In the present study, we examine all 32 genres in ICE-GB (15 spoken, 17 written).

As well as addressing Biber's points, our research will examine an even more fundamental issue, namely the definition of "subordination" itself. Thompson admits that "subordination" is a highly misleading term which in the past has been seen as a "negative term which lumps together all deviations from some 'main clause' norm". In this sense, it treats as a single phenomenon all clauses which are not "main" clauses, despite the fact that we lack a definition of "main". In keeping with Thompson's approach, we take as one of our starting points the view that 'subordination' subsumes several types of 'dependency', each performing very different types of discourse work (Thompson 1984: 86-7).

Interim results from this research, as well as a description of the methodology, will be posted on this site. Final results will be published in papers and in a monograph.


Beaman, K. (1984) Coordination and subordination revisited: syntactic complexity in spoken and written narrative discourse. In D. Tannen (ed.) Coherence in spoken and written discourse. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex. pp.45-80.

Biber, D. (1988) Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chafe, W. (1986) Writing in the perspective of speaking. In C.R. Cooper and S. Greenbaum (eds) Studying Writing. Beverly Hills: Sage. pp.12-39.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1989) Spoken and Written Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) An Introduction to Functional Grammar (2nd. edn). London: Arnold.

O'Donnell, R.C. (1974) Syntactic differences between speech and writing,. American Speech 49. pp.102-110.

Tannen, D. (1982) The oral/literate continuum in discourse. In Tannen, D. (ed.) Spoken and written language: exploring orality and literacy. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex.pp.1-16.

Thompson, S. (1984) 'Subordination' in formal and informal discourse, In Schffrin D. (ed.) Meaning, Form, and Use in Context: Linguistic Applications. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press. pp.85-94.

This page last modified 28 May, 2015 by Survey Web Administrator.