in touch with real speech
In touch with real speech

Evidence No.2: ‘I read in a newspaper this morning….’

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Students often ask advice about the correct way to say a sentence. Consider this one:

‘I read in a newspaper this morning that he wasn’t happy with you’.

When giving advice, we might have recourse to text book rules and recommend placing prominences in the ‘content’ words, and dividing the sentence into two tone units. Then we might advise placing tones on the last content word of each tone unit, with a rising tone at the end of the first tone unit, and a falling tone at the end of the second tone unit:

But real language often holds surprises which should make us think twice before giving 'correct way' advice. Listening to an interview with a politician on breakfast radio one morning in 1992, I heard the interviewer say this sentence, with onset prominences on the first syllable 'I', and a falling tone on 'YOU':

Try imitating this tone unit, making sure that you differentiate between the prominent, and non-prominent syllables. Remember, just the first and the last syllables are prominent, and the sixteen syllables in the eleven words 'read in a newspaper this morning that he wasn't happy with' are all non-prominent.

You might think that this is very odd. But it fitted the context of the interview in which it occurred. The larger context was of the general election of 1992 (which the Labour Party, under Neil Kinnock, lost). The local context is that the interviewer ('I') has been asking a senior member of the Labour Party about rumours printed in the newspapers that Neil Kinnock ('he' ) wasn't happy with a senior member of the Labour team (not the interviewee). The prior talk has put all the ideas 'newspaper', 'reading', 'this morning', 'not being happy' into play, so that the interviewer does not need to highlight them when he utters this tone unit. But he does focus on the speaker roles 'I' and 'YOU'. He highlights these words to shift the attention to the adversarial element characteristic of such interviews-the battle between the the interviewer who wants to catch the politician off-guard, and the politician who wants to reassure the listeners that everything is 'all right'. Selecting 'I' (= 'not them') personalises the combat, it is no longer between absent journalists and an absent politician, but a personalised, here-and-now attack from 'I' against 'YOU'.

Lovely example, lovely context. But what are the implications of this example for giving students advice? Two implications spring to my mind: first, it is clear that any such advice should begin with the words, 'Well, it depends on the context'; second, there is no such thing as a 'correct way' - there are a number of ways of saying this sentence, each of which would be appropriate for a different context.