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Book B7: Packing of Information in Speech

Packing of Information in Speech

Packing of Information in Speech
By Prof. Kev Nair

"Packing of Information, teaches you methodically how to pack meaning and content into speech the way native speakers of English do."
The New Indian Express.

Please note: This book is not sold separately. It is available for sale only as part of Fluentzy: The English Fluency Encyclopedia.

Sample pages from this book

Packing of information

The extent of your fluency in spoken English depends on an important factor: The way you pack information in your speech. That is, the way you pack words within your idea units, as well as the way you pack idea units within your speech. If you pack information densely, you will find it difficult to be fluent. If you pack information loosely, you will find it easier to be fluent. This is the general principle of information-packing.

This principle is of great importance for fluency-development. So we must take it up immediately. We’ll only be able to get a clear idea of this principle if we do one thing: We must look at a basic point of difference between spoken English and written English. This all-important difference is this: Written English normally packs information densely. But spontaneous spoken English always packs information loosely.

So here’s a fundamental principle you should always remember: Never pack information in speech the way you pack information in writing.

Techniques of information-packing
How does written English pack information densely? How does spoken English pack information loosely? These things happen in the following ways:

A. Written English uses a tight syntax. But spoken English uses a loose syntax. (‘Syntax’ is the grammatical arrangement of words). And so written English relies more on a ‘hierarchical arrangement’ of clauses called subordination than spoken English does. Spoken English relies far less on subordination. What spoken English does is to rely far more on an ‘equal arrangement’ of clauses called co-ordination than written English.

B. Written English uses heavily-modified, complex phrases freely. Spoken English does not.

C. Written English goes in search of the ‘right’ words and uses ‘specific’ and ‘non-general’ words wherever possible. Spoken English does not do so. Spoken English prefers non-specific and general words.

A. Subordination and co-ordination
We can connect two clauses by one of these methods:

1) Co-ordination; or 2) Subordination.

In co-ordination, we connect two clauses by the conjunctions and, and then, or, but, so, yet, nor, neither, either... or, and neither... nor. (Or, sometimes we just utter two independent clauses next to each other — without using a co-ordinator between the two).

In subordination, we connect clauses by conjunctions like after, although, when, etc. (There are, of course, other methods of subordinating a clause, and we’ll look at them later in this Lesson).

You see, co-ordination is far more helpful than subordination in speech-production. The reason is this: If you connect two clauses by co-ordination, the clauses continue to remain structurally independent, and one clause does not become a burden on the other by becoming structurally dependent on it. This sort of ‘equal arrangement’ is not a tight arrangement (as subordination is), and so, it makes the speech-production process quite flexible.

Eg: I was coming from the office + and I saw an elephant.

Here the clauses ‘I was coming from the office’ and ‘I saw an elephant’ are both independent clauses, because neither of them is a constituent element of the other. But if we connect the two clauses by subordination, the clause that has been subordinated becomes a constituent of the other clause, and becomes embedded in it — by becoming fixed there firmly and deeply. And the clause that has been subordinated loses its independent status.

Eg: As I was coming from the office + I saw an elephant. (Or, I saw an elephant + as I was coming from the office).

Here the clause that’s been subordinated is: ‘as I was coming from the office’. (It’s been subordinated by making it start with the subordinator ‘as’). This is not an independent clause, because it cannot stand alone as a sentence. The subordinating conjunction ‘as’ has forced it to become a constituent element of the matrix clause ‘I saw an elephant’. Thus subordination has brought about an ‘unequal’ arrangement, and has created a hierarchical order — with the matrix clause having superior status (because it can stand alone as a sentence) and the subordinate clause having inferior status (because it cannot usually stand alone as a sentence).

On the other hand, in co-ordination, the clauses that are linked together continue having equal status, because they continue to remain independent.

Matrix clause first
You see, the idea units in spontaneous speech are not made up before we start speaking. No. They’re made up as we speak on and, that too, under pressure of time. So speakers don’t have the time to hierarchically arrange their clauses into matrix clauses and subordinate clauses. What they normally find easier to do is this: Utter independent unit after independent unit, and leave them independent and of equal status — through co-ordination.

But don’t be under a wrong impression. In spontaneous speech, nobody can avoid subordination completely. No. This is because, in certain situations, grammar, usage or even common sense gives you no choice.

Now suppose that a construction that occurs to you spontaneously is a subordinate one and that it tends to become involved or complicated — making it difficult for you to keep up a flow of speech. Then you can avoid the problems of subordination in four ways: (i) Convert the subordinate construction into a co-ordinate one; (ii) Leave the subordinate clause half-finished, and start uttering a new independent clause in its place; (iii) Reconstruct the subordinate clause differently, by introducing it with a simple subordinator — rather than in any other way. (iv) Reconstruct your utterance, by uttering the matrix clause first and the subordinate clause next.

The fourth point is very important. You see, written English often prefers the order ‘subordinate clause first and matrix clause next’.

Eg: As I was coming from the office + I saw an elephant.

But spoken English prefers the order ‘matrix clause first and the subordinate clause next’.

Eg: I saw an elephant + as I was coming from the office.

This is the natural order. You know, you can avoid a lot of problems that subordination brings up by this simple trick: Utter the matrix clause first and the subordinate clause next.

Note 1: In writing as well as in speech, co-ordination is more frequent than subordination. But between writing and speech, you’ll find the percentage of co-ordination far more in speech than in writing.

Note 2: If the speech is formal, the percentage of subordination would be more than if it is informal. In fact, the less formal the speech becomes, the less the percentage of subordination and the more the percentage of co-ordination.

Nature of information-packing and fluency
You see, when you connect one clause to the next by co-ordination, you feel a sense of completeness at the end of each clause. You have a feeling that there’s no syntactic compulsion to continue in a rigidly-fixed direction. You do not feel under any syntactic pressure to construct the next clause in a particular way. No. In fact, you have a feeling of considerable syntactic freedom, and you feel free to construct it in a way that suits your convenience.

But what happens in subordination is entirely different:

Eg: As I was coming from the office + I saw an elephant.

Here the subordinate clause ‘As I was coming from the office’ has been placed first, and so this is a tight arrangement. If you follow this tight arrangement, you feel a sense of incompleteness at the end of the subordinate clause. And there’s then in you a sense of restraint and a sense of being tied down to something. This is because your mind is burdened by a thought: “Now that I’ve uttered a subordinate clause, I’ll have to utter a matrix clause too, and I’m bound to construct it in a way that the subordinate clause dictates, and not in a way that I find convenient”. That is, after uttering ‘As I was coming from the office’, you don’t feel that your responsibility for the utterance is over. There’s a sense of syntactic compulsion weighing down on your mind, asking you to continue in a rigidly-fixed direction. You’re now under considerable syntactic pressure to construct the next clause in a pre-determined way. And you don’t have any syntactic choice — as when you use co-ordination.

So at the end of the subordinate clause that’s been placed first, you tend to lose your speech-composition balance, and you tend to falter, and you find it difficult to continue. In fact, subordination tends to make you lose not only your speech-composition balance, but also your speech-delivery balance. Mind you, when you utter the subordinate clause first, there’s no sense of completeness at the end of that clause. So your organs of speech are in stretched (and uncomfortable) positions towards the end of the subordinate clause. And they try to complete the subordinate clause and to start the matrix clause from their stretched and uncomfortable positions — and not from their normal or relaxed positions. Naturally, you find it difficult to speak with a flow. Your speech tends to falter and comes to a stop.

You see, this does not happen in co-ordination.

That’s why, if you employ subordination, it’s generally better to utter the matrix clause first, and the subordinate clause next. Do this as far as possible. You see, when you do that, a lot of the syntactic pressure on your mind gets relieved. This is because at the end of the matrix clause (which you utter first), you have several syntactic options for the next idea unit. Subordination then becomes just one of those several options. And when you follow this order, your subordinate arrangement becomes a lot similar to a co-ordinate arrangement, because the structure of the subordinate arrangement would then be:

Independent clause + Connector+ Independent clause.

The only difference then between the two types of arrangement is this: In co-ordination, the connector is a co-ordinating conjunction, and in subordination, the connector is a subordinating conjunction.

Now listen. Suppose that you happen to start your utterance with a subordinate clause (rather than with a matrix clause). And suppose that you run into speech-composition difficulties. Then you can get over the difficulties by leaving the subordinate clause unfinished. You see, this kind of unfinished units and incomplete structures are quite common in naturally-occurring speech. A main reason is this: When your organs of speech are already in stretched positions, you’ll find it necessary to relieve them of the pressure on them. So you give up the structure half-finished. Then your organs of speech would immediately come back to their normal positions, and they become relaxed and free of the pressure on them. The organs of speech can then start the next utterance from these relaxed positions.


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