Is Academic Writing Becoming More Colloquial?

Have you noticed that academic writing in books and journals seems less formal than it used to? Preliminary data from the Written BNC2014 shows that you may be right!

Some early data from the academic journals and academic books sections of the new corpus has been analysed to find out whether academic writing has become more colloquial since the 1990s. Colloquialisation is “a tendency for features of the conversational spoken language to infiltrate and spread in the written language” (Leech, 2002: 72). The colloquialisation of language can make messages more easily understood by the general public because, whilst not everybody is familiar with the specifics of academic language, everyone is familiar with spoken language. In order to investigate the colloquialisation of academic writing, the frequencies of several linguistic features which have been associated with colloquialisation were compared in academic writing in the BNC1994 and the BNC2014.

Results show that, of the eleven features studied, five features have shown large changes in frequency between the BNC1994 and the BNC2014, pointing to the colloquialisation of academic writing. The use of first and second person pronouns, verb contractions, and negative contractions have previously been found to be strongly associated with spoken language. These features have all increased in academic language between 1994 and 2014. Passive constructions and relative pronouns have previously been found to be strongly associated with written language, and are not often used in spoken language. This analysis shows that both of these features have decreased in frequency in academic language in the BNC2014.

Figure 1: Frequency increases indicating the colloquialisation of academic language.

Figure 2: Frequency decreases indicating the colloquialisation of academic language.

These frequency changes were also compared for each genre of academic writing separately. The genres studied were: humanities & arts, social science, politics, law & education, medicine, natural science, and technology & engineering. An interesting difference between some of these genres emerged. It seems that the ‘hard’ sciences (medicine, natural science, and technology & engineering) have shown much larger changes in some of the linguistic features studied than the other genres have. For example, figure 3 shows the difference in the percentage increase of verb contractions for each genre, and clearly shows a difference between the ‘hard’ sciences and the social sciences and humanities subjects.

Figure 3: % increases in the frequency of the use of verb contractions between 1994 and 2014 for each genre of academic writing.

This may lead you to think that medicine, natural science, and technology & engineering writing has become more colloquial than the other genres, but this is in fact not the case. Looking more closely at the data shows us that these ‘hard’ science genres were actually much less colloquial than the other genres in the 1990s, and that the large change seen here is actually a symptom of all genres becoming more similar in their use of these features. In other words, some genres have not become more colloquial than others, they have simply had to change more in order for all of the genres to become more alike.

So it seems from this analysis that, in some respects at least, academic language has certainly become more colloquial since the 1990s. The following is a typical example of academic writing in the 1990s, taken from a sample of a natural sciences book in the BNC1994. It shows avoidance of using first or second person pronouns and contractions (which have increased in use in the BNC2014), and shows use of a passive construction (the use of which has decreased in the BNC2014).

Experimentally one cannot set up just this configuration because of the difficulty in imposing constant concentration boundary conditions (Section 14.3). In general, the most readily practicable experiments are ones in which an initial density distribution is set up and there is then some evolution of the configuration during the course of the experiment.

It is much more common nowadays to see examples such as the following, taken from an academic natural sciences book in the BNC2014. This example contains active sentence constructions, first person pronouns, verb contractions, negative contractions, and a question.

No doubt people might object in further ways, but in the end nearly all these replies boil down to the first one I discussed above. I’d like to return to it and ponder a somewhat more aggressive version, one that might reveal the stakes of this discussion even more clearly. Very well, someone might say. Not reproducing may make sense for most people, but my partner and I are well – educated, well – off, and capable of protecting our children from whatever happens down the road. Why shouldn’t we have children if we want to?

It will certainly be interesting to see if this trend of colloquialisation can be seen in other genres of writing in the BNC2014!

Would you like to contribute to the Written BNC2014?

We are looking for native speakers of British English to submit their student essays, emails, and Facebook and Whatsapp messages for inclusion in the corpus! To find out more, and to get involved click here. All contributors will be fully credited in the corpus documentation.

British National Corpus 2014: A sociolinguistic book is out

Have you ever wondered what real spoken English looks like? Have you ever asked the question of whether people from different backgrounds (based on gender, age, social class etc.) use language differently? Have you ever  thought it would be interesting to investigate how much English has changed over the last twenty years? All these questions can be answered by looking at language corpora such as the Spoken BNC 2014 and analysing them from a sociolinguistic persective. Corpus Approaches to Contemporary British Speech:  Sociolinguistic Studies of the Spoken BNC2014 is a book which offers a series of studies that provide a unique insight into a number of topics ranging from Discourse, Pragmatics and Interaction to Morphology and Syntax.

This is, however, only the first step. We are hoping that there will be many more studies to come based on this wonderful dataset. If you want to start exploring the Spoken BNC 2014 corpus, it is just three mouse clicks away:

Get access to the BNC2014 Spoken

  1. Register for free and log on to CQPweb.
  2. Sign-up for access to the BNC2014 Spoken.
  3. Select ‘BNC2014’in the main CQPweb menu.

Also, right now there is a great opportunity to take part in the written BNC 2014 project, a written counterpart to the Spoken BNC2014.  If you’d like to contribute to the written BNC2014, please check out the project’s website for more information.

Learn about the BNC2014, scan a book sample and contribute to the corpus…

On Saturday 12 May 2018, CASS hosted a small training event at Lancaster University for a group of participants, who came from different universities in the UK.  We talked about the BNC2014 project and discussed both the theoretical underpinnings as well as the practicalities of corpus design and compilation. Slides from the event are available as pdf here.

The participants then tried in practice what is involved in the compilation of a large general corpus such as the BNC2014. They selected and scanned samples of books from current British fiction, poetry and a range of non-fiction books (history, popular science, hobbies etc.). Once processed, these samples will become a part of the written BNC2014.

Here are some pictures from the event:

Carmen Dayrell and Vaclav Brezina before the event

Elena Semino welcoming participants

In the computer lab: Abi Hawtin helping participants

A box full of books

If you are interested in contributing to the written BNC2014, go to the project website  to find out about different ways in which you can participate in this exciting project.

The event was supported by ESRC grant no. EP/P001559/1.

The Spoken BNC2014 is now available!

On behalf of Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press, it gives us great pleasure to announce the public release of the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 (Spoken BNC2014).

The Spoken BNC2014 contains 11.5 million words of transcribed informal British English conversation, recorded by (mainly English) speakers between the years 2012 and 2016. The situational context of the recordings – casual conversation among friends and family members – is designed to make the corpus broadly comparable to the demographically-sampled component of the original spoken British National Corpus.

The Spoken BNC2014 is now accessible online in full, free of charge, for research and teaching purposes. To access the corpus, you should first create a free account on Lancaster University’s CQPweb server ( if you do not already have one. Once registered, please visit the BNC2014 website ( to (a) sign the corpus’ end-user licence and (b) register your CQPweb account – following the instructions on the site. When you return to CQPweb, you will have access to the Spoken BNC2014 via the link that appears in the list of ‘Present-day English’ corpora. While access is initially only via the CQPweb platform, the underlying corpus XML files and associated metadata will be available for download in Autumn 2018.

The BNC2014 website also contains lots of useful information about the corpus, and in particular a downloadable manual and reference guide, which will be available soon. Further information, as well as the first research articles to use Spoken BNC2014 data, will be available in two in-press publications associated with the project: a special issue of the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics (due next month) and an edited collection in the Routledge ‘Advances in Corpus Linguistics’ series (due early 2018).

The BNC2014 does not end here – we are currently working on transcribing materials provided to us by the British Library to provide a substantial supplement to the corpus – find out more about that here: For now, we will be waiting and watching with interest to see what work the corpus releases today stimulates. As ever with corpus data, it does not enable all questions to be answered, but it does allow a very wide range of questions to be investigated.

The Spoken BNC2014 research team would like to express our gratitude to all who have had a hand in the creation of the corpus, and hope that you enjoy exploring the data. We are, of course, keen to hear your feedback about the corpus; this, as well as any questions, can be directed to Robbie Love ( this parenthesis with the @ sign) or Andrew Hardie (a.hardie(Replace this parenthesis with the @ sign)

Spoken BNC2014 Symposium

On the afternoon of Monday 26th June, CASS hosted a special symposium to celebrate the upcoming public launch of the Spoken British National Corpus 2014 – a corpus which members of CASS and Cambridge University Press have spent the last three years compiling.

More than fifty guests attended, representing a mixture of Lancaster Summer Schools participants, members of the CASS Challenge Panel, and those who travelled to Lancaster just for the day.

To kick off the symposium, CASS Centre Director Andrew Hardie said a few words about the history of Corpus Linguistics at Lancaster University, and put the compilation of a new BNC into context against previous developments in the field. He expressed his delight at the interest in the Spoken BNC2014 project as evidenced by the number of guests who were in attendance for the symposium.

I then gave the first talk alongside Claire Dembry (from Cambridge University Press) and Andrew Hardie, as representatives of the Spoken BNC2014 research team which also includes Vaclav Brezina and Tony McEnery. We discussed the main methodological decisions we made when thinking about the design, data collection, transcription and processing of the corpus. Andrew then gave a quick demonstration of the corpus in CQPweb, showing how features including speaker IDs, overlaps and attribution confidence are displayed in the interface.

Following our talk came the first of four research presentations, all of which used (the early access subset of) the Spoken BNC2014. The first of these was a talk by Karin Aijmer (University of Gothenburg) about the intensifier fucking, which went down very well with the audience. Karin’s Spoken BNC2014 research, which also includes other intensifiers, will be published as a chapter in Brezina et al. (forthcoming).

After a short break for refreshments, Jacqueline Laws (University of Reading) presented research into verb-forming suffixation which she had undertaken with Chris Ryder and Sylvia Jaworska. Comparing the demographically-sampled component of the Spoken BNC1994 to the new Spoken BNC2014, she found that females now appear to produce more neologisms (e.g. favouritize, popify) compared to males. Laws et al.’s research will be published in a forthcoming special issue of the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics.

Susan Reichelt (Lancaster University) was next to present her work on producing sociolinguistically comparable subsets of both the original and new Spoken British National Corpora. She highlighted a point which I had touched upon in my earlier talk: that the compilation of the Spoken BNC2014 sought to strike a balance between direct comparability with the original corpus on the one hand, and methodological improvement on the other. The areas where improvement was favoured over comparability (e.g. the classification of speaker socio-economic status) ought to be considered especially when thinking about sociolinguistic analysis. Susan’s work is associated with the recently announced CASS SDA project.

Finally, Jonathan Culpeper and Mathew Gillings (Lancaster University) presented their work on politeness variation between the north and south of England. They aimed to assess the extent to which commonly held stereotypes about differences between northern and southern politeness were reflected in language use in both the original and new corpora as a single dataset. Their work will be published as a chapter in Brezina et al. (forthcoming).

My reaction as the organiser of the symposium was that there is definitely a sense of anticipation about the release of the Spoken BNC2014, which is planned to take place in the autumn. Furthermore it was lovely to meet so many friendly and enthusiastic attendees. I am very grateful to each of the speakers for giving such interesting talks, and to all who attended – especially those who tweeted their reactions to the talks using the #BNC2014 hashtag! As one of my final duties as a member of CASS before moving onto pastures new, I am very glad that the symposium went as well as it did.

Introducing a new project with the British Library

Since 2012 the BBC have been working with the British Library to build a collection of intimate conversations from across the UK in the BBC Listening Project. Through its network of local radio stations, and with the help of a travelling recording booth the BBC has captured many conversations of people, who are well known to one another, on a range of topics in high quality audio.

For the past two years we have been discussing with the BBC and the British Library the possibility of using these recordings as the basis of a large scale extension of our spoken BNC corpus. The Spoken BNC2014 has been built so far to reflect language in intimate settings – with recordings made in the home. This has led to a large and very useful collection of data but, without the resources of an organization such as the BBC, we were not able to roam the country with a sound recording booth to sample language from John o’Groats to Land’s End! By teaming up with the BBC and British Library we can supplement this very useful corpus of data, which is strongly focused on a ‘hard to capture’ context, intimate conversations in the home, with another type of data, intimate conversations in a public situation sampled from across the UK.

Another way in which the Listening data should prove helpful to linguists is that the data itself was captured in a recording studio as high quality audio recordings. Our hope is that a corpus based on this material will be of direct interest and use to phoneticians.

We have recently concluded our discussion with the British Library, which is archiving this material, and signed an agreement which will see CASS undertake orthographic transcription of the data. Our goal is to provide a high quality transcription of the data which will be of use to linguists and members of the public, who may wish to browse the collection, alike. In doing this we will be building on our experience of producing the Trinity Lancaster Corpus of Spoken Learner English and the Spoken BNC2014.

We take our first delivery of recordings at the beginning of March and are very excited at the prospect of lifting the veil a little further on the fascinating topic of everyday conversation and language use. The plan is to transcribe up to 1000 of the recordings archived at the British Library. We will be working to time align the transcriptions with the sound recordings also and are working closely with our strong phonetics team in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Lancaster University to begin to assess the extent to which this new dataset could facilitate new work, for example, on the accents of the British Isles.

Our partners in the British Library are just as excited as we are – Jonnie Robinson, lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library says ‘The British Library is delighted to enable Lancaster to make such innovative use of the Listening Project conversations and we look forward to working with them to make the collection more accessible and to enhance its potential to support linguistic and other research enquiries’.

Keep an eye on the CASS website and Twitter feed over the next couple of years for further updates on this new project!

Spoken BNC2014 book announcement

We are excited to announce a forthcoming book which will be published as part of the BNC2014 logoRoutledge Advances in Corpus Linguistics series. “Corpus Approaches to Contemporary British Speech: Sociolinguistic Studies of the Spoken BNC2014” (edited by Vaclav Brezina, Robbie Love and Karin Aijmer) will feature a collection of research which is currently being undertaken by the recipients of the Spoken BNC2014 Early Access data grants.

With exclusive early access to approximately five million words of Spoken BNC2014 data, the book’s contributors will present a range of innovative studies which each analyse the corpus from a sociolinguistic perspective.

Following the public release of the complete Spoken BNC2014 (approximately ten million words) in late 2017, the book is anticipated to follow shortly thereafter. The agreement of the book with Routledge joins a previously announced special issue of the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics (IJCL), which will feature a range of work by other recipients of the Spoken BNC2014 Early Access data grants.


The Spoken BNC2014 early access projects: Part 4

In January, we announced the recipients of the Spoken BNC2014 Early Access Data Grants. Over the next several months, they will use exclusive access to the first five million words of Spoken BNC2014 data to carry out a total of thirteen research projects.

In this series of blogs, we are excited to share more information about these projects, in the words of their authors.

In the fourth and final part of our series, read about the work of Tanja Hessner & Ira Gawlitzek, Karin Axelsson, Andrew Caines et al. and Tanja Säily et al.

Tanja Hessner and Ira Gawlitzek

University of Mannheim, Germany

Women speak in an emotional manner; men show their authority through speech! – A corpus-based study on linguistic differences showing which gender clichés are (still) true by analysing boosters in the Spoken BNC2014

Western world clichés claim that women are emotional and often exaggerate, which is reflected in their speech. In contrast, men’s language is said to be characterised by bluntness. Aiming to shed a bit more light on statements like these, this study is going to consider gender differences on the lexical level.

In order to discover if and, if so, to which extent there really is a difference between female and male speakers, the phenomena of boosters will be investigated in the Spoken BNC2014 early access subset. Boosters such as totally or absolutely are particularly appealing and suitable for analysing gender differences since they are extremely multifaceted and they are indicators not only of lively, but also of emotional and powerful speech. Not only are appropriate boosters investigated by using quantitative methods, but also by analysing the data in a qualitative way.

Karin Axelsson

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Canonical and non-canonical tag questions in the Spoken BNC2014: What has happened since the original BNC?

What is happening to tag questions in British everyday conversation? Are canonical tag questions, where the form of the tag reflects that of the preceding clause (as in She won’t come, will she?), on the way out as the use of innit and other invariant tags is spreading? Who uses innit in 2014? The use of tag questions in the Spoken BNC2014 early access subset will be compared to the use in the demographic part of the original Spoken BNC reflecting the language of the early 1990s.

Andrew Caines1, Michael McCarthy2 and Paula Buttery1

1University of Cambridge, UK

2University of Nottingham, UK

‘You still talking to me?’ The zero auxiliary progressive in spoken British English, twenty years on

With early access to a subset of the Spoken BNC2014, we will be able to assess whether a supposedly ‘ungrammatical’ construction has become more frequently used in conversational British English over the past 20 years. The construction in question is the ‘zero auxiliary’ – for example, the progressive aspect construction may be used with an -ing verb form alone (“you talking to me?”, “What you doing?”, “We going to town”) whereas the standard rule is to combine an auxiliary verb (BE or HAVE) with the -ing form.

In the original Spoken BNC recorded in the early 1990s, the zero auxiliary occurred in one-in-twenty progressive constructions, a rate that rose to one-in-three if second person interrogatives (You talking to me? etc.) were considered alone. Moreover, younger working-class speakers were more likely to use the zero auxiliary than older middle-class speakers. We will investigate how these usage rates compare to the Spoken BNC2014, in the process updating the demographics of zero auxiliary use as well.

Tanja Säily1, Victoria González-Díaz2 and Jukka Suomela3

1University of Helsinki, Finland

2University of Liverpool, UK

3Aalto University, Finland

Variation in the productivity of adjective comparison

The functional competition between inflectional (‑er) and periphrastic (more) comparative strategies in English has received a great deal of attention in corpus-based research. A key area of competition remains relatively unexplored, however: the productivity of either comparative strategy, or how diversely they are used with different adjectives. The received wisdom is that inflection is fully productive, so we might expect to find no variation within the productivity of ‑er. However, recent research using new methods shows sociolinguistic variation in the productivity of extremely productive derivational suffixes. Whether the same variation applies to the productivity of inflectional processes remains an open question.

On the basis of the Spoken BNC2014 early access subset, our project will analyse intra- and extra-linguistic variation in the productivity of inflectional and periphrastic comparative strategies. Intra-linguistic factors include syntactic position, modification preferences, length and derivational type of the adjective. The extra-linguistic determinants focus on gender, age, socio-economic status, conversational setting and roles of the interlocutors. Our research constitutes a timely contribution to current knowledge of adjective comparison and morphological theory-building. If (a) variation in the productivity of inflectional comparison is found and (b) similar change in the productivity of both derivational and inflectional processes is observed, this will support our hypothesis that there is a derivation-to-inflection cline rather than a sharp divide.

Check back soon for more updates on the Spoken BNC2014 project!