Heads and tails
Tuesday 28 February 2012
by Ken Paterson
The last two units in ‘A Handbook of Spoken Grammar’ (follow the links ‘Titles’ and ‘Language Practice’ on the DELTA website for details), deal with ‘heads’ and ‘tails’, both of which involve the repetition of information outside the normal English clause structure.
Heads (also called ‘headers’ by Carter and McCarthy in the ‘Cambridge Grammar of English, and ‘noun phrase prefaces’ by Biber et al in the ‘Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’) are a fairly common way for speakers to ‘isolate’ and draw attention to a particular piece of information by placing it at the front of their sentence:
- Those train tickets by the fridge, are they yours?
[In the question above, the head is ‘Those train tickets by the fridge’, and it is ‘repeated’ in the pronoun ‘they’.]
Interestingly, heads can also make complex ideas more manageable by breaking them into two chunks; e.g. it may be easier to say ‘The people you work with, are they friendly?’ than ‘Are the people you work with friendly?’.
Tails are normally used after a sentence that is already grammatically complete, either for clarification or for emphasis:
- She’s got some very funny ideas, your sister.
[In the comment above, ‘your sister’ is the tail.]
A tail can also allow you to ‘withhold’ a vital piece of information, forcing the listener to wait until the end of your sentence! E.g.:
- I’m not sure if they ever really tell you the complete truth, politicians.
We explore the grammar of heads and tails as clearly as we can in the book, and offer some practice exercises and activities for learners who may want to bring them into their conversation.
This is my last blog in the present series, so if you have been, thanks for reading!
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