Douglas Biber - Spoken and Written Textual Dimensions

Resolving the contradictory findings

Term Paper 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Research on spoken and written language
2.1. General research with different findings
2.2 Spoken and written textual dimensions in English: Resolving the contradictory findings a brief summary of Douglas Biber’s study

3. Resolving the contradictory findings
3.1. Jane Austen’s “Emma” – the characterisation of Emma Woodhouse – an example for written language according to Biber’s study
3.2. Larissa Macfarquahr “The Dean’s List” – an example for spoken language according to Biber’s study?

4. Biber’s controversial study- a necessity or providing already known facts?

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix
71. linguistic features with salient weight from factor comparison of two text samples
7.2. a) linguistic features with salient weight from factor comparison of two text samples
7.2. b) linguistic features with negative weight from factor comparison of two text samples
7.3. a) linguistic features with salient weight from factor comparison of two text samples
7.3. b) linguistic features with negative weight from factor comparison of two text samples
7.4. AUSTEN, Jane (1816). Emma. Harmondsworth: Penguin [reprint 1994].
7.5. MACFARQUAHR. Larissa (2001). The Dean’s List. The New Yorker, June 11. 2001.

1. Introduction

Douglas Biber’s research on factor analysis as well as on multi- dimensional approaches towards variation and spoken and written language drew a controversial picture which is worth talking about.

In the following paper his study on the “contradictory findings in speaking and writing in English” is discussed with the help of two text samples.1 The first one is an excerpt from Jane Austen’s novel “Emma”2 and the second text is “The Dean’s List” taken from the New Yorker in 2001.3

The question which has to be answered is whether the each text is more on the written or on the spoken side. It is claimed that his research was not explicitly necessary to distinguish between speaking and writing, because Biber seems to concentrate on already known results from earlier studies.

This paper is divided into four major parts, leading from a brief history on spoken and written language research to a summary of Biber’s study, the two text samples and finally the last question whether his study provides new results that explicitly help distinguishing between speaking and writing.

2. Research on spoken and written language

2.1. General research with different findings

Until the 1960s, research presumed that speaking and writing were dependent on each other, saying that writing was easier to observe as it could be collected and stored4, but the following years developed a new point of view and researchers orientated on an observation Aristotle had once made: “It should be observed that each kind of rhetoric has its own appropriate style. The style of written prose is not that of spoken oratory.”5 Suddenly, linguists became aware of the fact that it was worth realising the presumably obvious differences between speaking and writing.

Besides various linguists, Devito realised the necessity of research on the two kinds of language in the 1960s, saying that written language has got a “ greater lexical diversity, more difficult words, a greater idea density, more nouns and adjectives and it is more abstract than spoken language which contains more self-references”.6 This claim was supported by various other linguists who even found more examples for the diversity of written language. I would like to summarise them briefly. Spoken language is reported to contain more noun clauses, infinitives and progressive auxiliaries and it is said to be more intelligible, because of simpler vocabulary. Written language, however, shows a lot more grammatical characteristics, e.g. gerunds, participles, attributive adjectives, passives and perfect auxiliaries.7

In 1987, Wallace Chafe and Jane Danielewicz published a paper on the “properties of spoken and written language”8, suggesting that neither spoken, nor written language is a unified phenomenon, as “each of the two modes allows a multiplicity of styles”.9 Furthermore, they emphasize that some kids of spoken language might be very spoken- like.10 Is it therefore really possible to distinguish them completely? Are these two kinds of a language not similar in various ways? Chafe and Danielewicz presumed that only with a written discourse a language can be used in different ways and that it adds significantly to the linguistic repertoire.11 Nevertheless, they still worked on distinguishing speaking and writing as they concentrated on the differences in a language which “seem to have much to do with the differences in how the language is produced and received”.12 Therefore, they pointed out that writers have much more time to deliberate and revise the choice of words they want to use in their text, whereas in spoken language the words have to be chosen quickly as dialogues or speeches are interactive and demand a high personal involvement.13

Moreover, summing up their findings, Chafe and Danielewicz concluded that sentences in written language are better planned than the spoken sentences and because of this result, sentences are the major unit of writing. In spoken language, however, intonation units play the most important role.

According to the results of the research, intonation units contain three properties that characterise spoken language. Firstly, they are spoken with a “single, coherent intonation contour, secondly, they are followed by a pause and finally they are likely to be a single clause.”14

Chafe and Dnielewicz compared speaking and writing in the way they are produced and summarised that language adapts to the varying environment.15 This statement leads to Douglas Biber and his opinion that “ no single, absolute difference between speech and writing exists in English; there are rather a number of ‘dimensions’ of variation, and particular types of speech and writing.…”16 In this article which is to be discussed in the following chapter he points out how speaking and writing can be determined via linguistic features and a multidimensional approach.

2.2. Spoken and written textual dimensions in English:

Resolving the contradictory findings17 – a brief summary of Douglas Biber’s study

In 1986, Douglas Biber published his paper on spoken and written textual dimensions in English, trying to find solutions for the question whether spoken and written language can be distinguished or if it is just impossible as these two forms of language are dependent on each other and therefore inseparable. His research is based on earlier studies which proposed differences between speaking and writing, but still being convinced that writing is above all more complex, more elaborate, more explicit and detached as well as without much personal involvement.18 Nevertheless, some earlier studies described the two forms of language as a coherent whole which would, according to Biber, absolutely limit the “communicative possibilities offered by a language.”19 He pointed out that they are too complex to be referred to in a single dimension point of view. Being not satisfied with the results from previous studies, Biber started concentrating on Wallace Chafe who already suggested two linguistic dimensions in distinguishing speaking and writing in 1982.20 Chafe has been convinced that only few absolute differences exist between spoken and written language, as different linguistic features might serve the same communicative functions in various kind of texts.21 In Biber’s point of view to textual dimensions still do not fulfil the expectations which are set to distinguish between speech and writing, therefore he suggested a multidimensional approach to identify linguistic features which identify either spoken or written texts.

The multidimensional approach is based on two main parts. At first, Biber and the members of his research team concentrated on a large- scale corpora which includes 545 text samples representing 16 text types, e.g. press reports, official documents, general and romantic fiction, face- to- face conversations, interviews and spontaneous speeches.22 Secondly, they needed an exact analysis of 41 linguistic syntactic features which represent a broad range of communicative functions. For the analysis, the features were empirically grouped into “clusters that co-occurred with high frequency in the texts.”23 This so-called factor analysis was based on the proposal that “such frequent groupings of features in texts indicate a shared, underlying communicative function.”24 They determined eight communicative functions for the linguistic features and only few are to be named briefly.25

1. Writing is said to have a more detached style which can be proved by the frequency of passive constructions as well as nominalizations.
2. Writing is described to have a more explicit level of expression which can be seen through the use of type /token ratio, i.e. the ratio of the number of different words to the total number of words26, or precise vocabulary.
3. Speech is reported to use a more inexplicit, informal style of expression which is characterised by informal vocabulary items as well as the general- reference pronoun ‘it’.
4. Speech is said to be more situated in a physical and temporal context which is supported by place and time adverbs.
5. Speech and writing differ in their use of verb tenses and aspects which can be proved by the frequency of present and past tenses.


1BIBER, Douglas. Spoken and Written textual dimensions in English:

Resolving the contradictory findings . Language 62. 1986. 384-414.

2 AUSTEN, Jane. Emma. Harmondsworth: Penguin [reprint 1994]. 5-6

3 MACFARQUAHR- Larissa. The Dean’s List. The New Yorker, June 11. 2001. p.62

4 CHAFE, Wallace and Deborah TANNEN. The Relation between written and spoken language.

Annual Revue 16. (1987): 384

5 CHAFE, TANNEN. (1987) 384

6 CHAFE, TANNEN (1987) 385

7 CHAFE, TANNEN (1987) 386

8 CHAFE, Wallace. DANIELEWICZ, Jane. “Properties of spoken and written language”.

Comprehending oral and written language. Ed. Rosalind Horowitz. Jays, Samuels.

Academic Press Inc. San Diego. New York. Berkeley. Boston. 1987.83








16 CHAFE, TANNEN p.390

17 BIBER, Douglas. “Spoken and Written textual dimensions in English:

Resolving the contradictory findings .” Language 62 (1986): 384-414.

18 BIBER p.384

19 BIBER p.385

20 BIBER p.385

21 BIBER p.385

22 BIBER p.387

23 BIBER p.387

24 BIBER p.387

25 BIBER p.388

26 BIBER, Douglas. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1988. 49


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Dresden Technical University – Institut für Anglistik/Ameikanistik
Douglas Biber Spoken Written Textual Dimensions Oral Englisch



Title: Douglas Biber - Spoken and Written Textual Dimensions