Inexplicitness: What Is It and Should We
Be Teaching It?
WINNIE CHENG and MARTIN WARREN
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
An invaluable resource to a speaker is the context in which he/she is speaking
and failure to utilize it fully will result in the conversation displaying an
unnecessary and inappropriate level of explicitness, or failing to reach an
adequate level of intelligibility. Using a corpus of native speaker and non-native
speaker conversations, it is shown that a characteristic of non-native speakers'
spoken language is the inappropriate level of inexplicitness used and the ways
in which inexplicitness is manifested in the discourse. Additional factors such as
repetition, linguistic competence, cultural schemata, and L1 transfer also
contribute to the different levels of inexplicitness in non-native conversational
utterances. Suggestions are made as to how we might help our students to
acquire and practise the skills and techniques required to achieve a more
appropriate level of inexplicitness in their spoken English.
This paper is concerned with the use of inexplicitness by native speakers (NSs)
and non-native speakers (NNSs) engaged in English conversations (i.e.
impromptu, uninstitutionalized discourses). Inexplicitness in conversations
is achieved through the employment of any one of a number of linguistic
forms which requires the hearer to interpret the specific meaning from the
particular context in which it is uttered.
As English language teachers in Hong Kong, we have found that a
characteristic of our students' spoken language is the inappropriate level of
inexplicitness, or the inappropriate form of inexplicitness, or both. These
perceived shortcomings in the communicative competence of Hong Kong
Chinese speaking conversational English are the focus of this study. The
objective of the study reported in this paper is to describe and compare the
respective levels and forms of inexplicitness employed by NNSs (Hong Kong
Chinese) and NSs conversing in English.1
However, being inappropriately
inexplicit is not unique to NNSs of English in Hong Kong, and therefore it is
hoped that the findings of the study will help to inform English language
teaching and learning both in Hong Kong and beyond.
Before presenting our research questions, we first of all define `context' and
`inexplicitness' and illustrate these notions with examples drawn from our
corpus of naturally-occurring conversational English between NNSs (Hong
Kong Chinese) and NSs.
Applied Linguistics 20/3: 293±315 # Oxford University Press 1999
While there are still studies which attempt to list all the elements which
comprise the physical context of conversation (see, for example, Wardhaugh
1985: 101), it is generally accepted that fully describing, let alone clearly
delineating, context is not feasible and that context is ultimately `indetermi-
nate' (Silverstein 1992). There is increasing recognition that the knowledge
and understanding of a particular context held in common by the participants
in the discourse (i.e. the participants' `shared knowledge') is negotiated
throughout a discourse. External or situational context is not fixed and shared
knowledge is not identical for all the participants in the conversation. The
participants in a conversation do not have full and equal access to a body of
shared knowledge. For individual participants, this knowledge can be
represented differently, or remembered to different degrees, or simply certain
knowledge is not accessible under certain circumstances. Shared knowledge is
constantly being negotiated between the participants and, in reality, there is
sharing of knowledge rather than shared knowledge between conversational
The debate over what exactly constitutes `context' continues, but a very
good overview of the contributions made by a variety of disciplines to this
debate is provided by Brown and Yule (1983: 37±46), and summarized below.
The importance of context in interpreting language was emphasized in
linguistic studies by Firth (1957: 226) who pointed out that words and
propositions have no meaning until they are used by participants in `contexts
of situation'. Firth (1957: 182) offered a list of categories that together
constitute the context of situation: the verbal and non-verbal action of the
participants, relevant features of the participants themselves, relevant objects,
and the effect of the verbal action. Ethnographers (see, for example, Hymes
1964) and philosophers (see, for example, Lewis 1972) have also worked to
compile comprehensive lists of contextual features and contextual co-
ordinates respectively, both of which in essence are very similar to that
proposed by Firth (1957).
An important contribution to the discussion of context has also been made
by Halliday and Hasan (1976: 31±33) who distinguish between `context' and
`context of situation'. The accompanying text (i.e. the context of a word,
utterance, or text) constitutes the context and the field, tenor, and mode of a
particular discourse comprise the context of situation. For our purposes, we
have set aside the distinction between the textual (context) and situational
(context of situation) made by Halliday and Hasan because we wish to
emphasize the interplay that exists between the two. In this study, `context'
subsumes both the textual and the situational contexts.
Concerning the relationship between language and context, Schiffrin
(1987: 5) suggests that language always takes place in a context and is
sensitive to it and that, in fact, `language reflects those contexts because it
helps to constitute them.' We would argue that in reality language makes
rather than simply reflects the context. Language does not simply depend on
context for its meaning; it also influences the context. This relationship
between language and context is underlined by Auer (1992: 21) who
describes the relationship between context and text as `reflexive'. In other
words, context does not determine language, rather language makes an
important contribution to the context. The interplay between context and
language can be illustrated with an example from our data. (Speakers are
identified by upper case letters for NSs and lower case letters for NNSs.)
A: NS male b: NNS male
1 A: going to use the washroom
2 b: turn around and then go straight in the middle
In extract 1, the participants are friends eating together in a restaurant and the
extract begins when A says on line 1 that he is going to the washroom
whereupon b gives A directions as to how to find it. This seemingly simple pair
of utterances provides a number of examples of the interplay between
language and context and demonstrates how language can influence and
shape the context. On line 1, for example, A does not say I'm going but uses
situational ellipsis and drops the subject pronoun and auxiliary verb, which is
a common form of inexplicitness in spoken discourse, especially conversation
(Carter and McCarthy 1995, 1997). In this discourse context, b clearly is able
to understand that it is A who intends to use the washroom and not b himself
and further that it is the restaurant's washroom which is being referred to.
The notion of deictic centre explains the context forming nature of b's
utterance on line 2 when he uses place deixis to provide directions to the
washroom, explicit mention of which is not required in this discourse context.
These deictic expressions in turn gain their specificity from the context which
they help to create.
We use `inexplicitness' to describe the extent to which linguistic behavior is
reliant on context to convey meaning. Inexplicitness can only be interpreted
by the hearer accessing the context in which it is spoken in order to assign
specificity to it. Inexplicitness may be in the form of ellipsis, substitution,
deixis, or reference. All of the forms of inexplicitness share a common
property: they are all non-specific when context independent, but they
become specific when interpreted in the particular context in which they are
used. Gumperz (1989, 1992) claims that conversational participants'
interpretations of discourse are aided by non-lexical contextualization cues,
such as rate of speech, eye gaze, gestures, and so on. Manifestations of
inexplicitness by means of a variety of linguistic forms, as defined in this
study, function in a similar fashion to Gumperz's (1989, 1992) contextual-
ization cues as they signal to the hearer that interpretation of their meaning is
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 295
reliant on the context. Inexplicitness requires the speaker to choose to invoke
the context through one or more of a variety of linguistic forms, and for the
hearer to then assign specificity from her or his understanding of the context.
Our notion of inexplicitness is supported by Grice's (1975: 45±6)
conversational maxims of Quantity and Manner. Grice's maxim of Quantity
states that a speaker's contributions should be as informative as is required but
should not be more informative than is required for the current purposes of
the exchange. His maxim of Manner requires contributions to be brief and
orderly and to avoid obscurity of expression and ambiguity. Adopting a similar
approach to Grice is Silverstein (1992: 55±7) who argues for a view of
discoursal context within which the participants are able to solve problems
caused by indexicals through a process of reduction and by the participants
achieving an `enoughness' of text. Silverstein's (1992) notion of `enoughness'
complements Grice's maxim of Quantity.
We argue that inexplicitness is a means by which conversational
participants realize `enoughness'. Participants in a conversation who ignore
the context in which they are operating can be expected to produce a
discourse that exceeds the amount of information required for the purposes of
the exchange. Also such a conversation will not be as brief as one that utilizes
all the inexplicit resources available to the participants. Equally a conversation
in which the level of explicitness required is underestimated by one or more
speakers will promote ambiguity and obscurity. An invaluable resource to a
speaker is the context in which she or he is speaking and failure to utilize it
fully will result in the conversation displaying an inappropriate level of
explicitness, or failing to reach an adequate level of intelligibility. In her work
on vague language, Channell (1994) provides convincing evidence that
efficient and successful communication is not impaired by speakers using
vague words and expressions and we argue that the same is true of speakers
who are appropriately inexplicit.
FORMS OF INEXPLICITNESS
Inexplicitness in a discourse is realized by the speaker or writer choosing to
employ one or more of its four forms, which we briefly describe and exemplify
Ellipsis and substitution
Ellipsis and substitution are two forms of explicitness which require the
hearer or reader to recover a part of the discourse from the context which
the speaker or writer has either chosen to omit or to replace by a substituted
element. Quirk et al. (1985: 859±60) note that language users usually exhibit
`strong preferences' for using ellipsis to reduce their utterances as much as
possible, while avoiding possibilities of ambiguity. Quirk et al. (1985: 861±2)
describe three main types of ellipsis: textual, situational and structural, based
on the means by which the hearer/reader recovers the reduction.2
substitution works by inserting a `placeholding element' (Halliday 1994:
370) to replace a lexical item. Examples of the use of ellipsis and
substitution are given below:
A: NS female b: NNS female
1 A: OK what we're going to do (is) we're going to wear bikinis
2 b: (laughs) (you're going to wear) bikinis (.) (but) that's (going)
3 topless (laughs)
4 A: yea (it is) but (we) might not go the whole hog (laughs)
In the above extract we have put back (in brackets) our understanding of
what the speakers have chosen to omit. It can be seen that the items left
unsaid are typically personal subjects and/or main and auxiliary verbs. This
type of ellipsis is situational in that it requires the hearer(s) to recover the
missing items from the immediate situation and these examples support the
claim made by Carter and McCarthy (1995: 145; 1997: 14±15) that ellipsis in
spoken discourse is typically situational.
A: NS female b: NNS female
1 A: say it's your it's your birthday coming right
2 b: he buy me the ring already right the black one the black pearl
3 A: oh the blue one black oh okay
4 b: black the black pearl did you see that before
5 A: no I don't think so I saw you wearing the blue one yesterday like
a blue ring
In extract 3 a number of examples of substitution are underlined. We can see
that there are a number of instances of speakers using one or so as substitutes
rather than repeating what has gone before, or that which follows. These
examples also clearly illustrate that the hearer is entirely reliant on the
context to assign a specific meaning to these substitute items.
The frequency with which ellipsis and substitution occur in our data
confirms Swan's (1995: 183) observation that words are often omitted or
substituted in `informal spoken English' when a speaker assumes the meaning
will be clear to the hearer(s) without them. The role of ellipsis and
substitution in promoting clarity in a discourse is emphasized by Quirk et al.
(1985: 860±4) who state that it is one of the two main reasons for their use,
the other being economy.
Before moving on from this discussion of ellipsis and substitution, we
should make the point that the notion that examples of ellipsis are simply a
result of speakers electing to omit chunks of language is potentially misleading
when describing the grammar of spoken language. We may have been guilty
of this in our attempt to exemplify two of the criteria we employ to measure
and compare the levels of inexplicitness of the two sets of speakers in our
data. The work of Wittgenstein (1953) and later interpretations of his ideas
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 297
(see, for example, Ring 1991) are important and relevant in this regard.
Wittgenstein (1953: 8±10) questions the assumption that, for example, when
a builder says `Slab!', he is simply uttering a shortened form of `Bring me a
slab'. In other words, is it necessary for the hearer of an ellipted utterance to
put back what is `missing' in order to correctly interpret it? We would want to
follow Wittgenstein and argue that it is not. The prevalence of ellipsis,
especially situational ellipsis, in spoken language is further evidence of a
difference in the grammars of spoken and written English and illustrates one
of the means by which spoken language actively shapes context. When
speakers converse they are engaged in what Wittgenstein would term a
different `language game' in which what we would term a higher level of
inexplicitness is normally appropriate.
Deixis and reference
The other two forms of inexplicitness are deixis and reference. A common
feature of conversations is the use of deictic expressions by the speakers. These
expressions are typically of time (e.g. now, yesterday, then), place (e.g. here,
there, this, that) and person (e.g. I, you, she) and achieve a specific meaning in
relation to the speaker at the time of speaking. In other words, the hearer
understands deixis in terms of the temporal, spatial, and personal position of
the speaker at any particular time in the discourse. Carter and McCarthy
(1997: 13) describe deixis as either pointing backwards and forwards in a text
or to a wider `extra-textual' context and they claim that the latter is especially
prevalent in conversations.
In extract 4 the examples of deictic expressions are underlined. The use of
person deixis, I and she, together with the place deictic here serve to locate and
identify the persons and places being talked about within this particular
A: NS female b: NNS female
1 A: ((laughs)) I think she's born here right
2 b: yes she's born here
Reference (see, for example, Halliday and Hasan 1976: 31±87) is a form of
cohesion in texts and includes pronouns, articles and demonstratives which
are used by writers and speakers to refer to specific referents in the context.
Readers and hearers recover the specific meaning for reference items either
textually (i.e. anaphoric and cataphoric reference) or situationally (i.e.
In extract 5, there are three instances of reference underlined, all of
which use the reference item it to refer anaphorically to referents in the
A: NS female b: NNS female
1 A: the fish we watched its head being chopped off and the blood
2 just [gushing everywhere
3 b: just [gushing
5 A: it's really disgusting
6 b: yea but at least it's fresh
It should be noted that there is considerable discussion (see, for example,
Brown and Yule 1983: 190±222; Levinson 1983: 54±61; Lyons 1977a: 174±
229) concerning the borderlines between substitution, deixis, and reference,
which we will not engage in here. For our purposes, the distinctions between
the forms of inexplicitness are less important than the way in which they all
function by a speaker using an inherently non-specific item, or no item at all,
for the hearer to then interpret a specific meaning in a particular contextÐ
which we subsume under the term inexplicitness.
LEVELS OF INEXPLICITNESS
We are not claiming like Chafe (1982), for example, that `context-free' and
`context dependent' language use are only characteristic of written and
spoken discourse modes respectively. Inexplicitness is not confined to
conversations. It is possible to find examples of inexplicitness in all types of
discourse, both spoken and written, because no discourse is context-free.
However, the occurrence of inexplicitness is not uniform across all discourse
types. For example, Warren (1993: 49) maintains that different levels of
inexplicitness are associated with different discourse types. Similarly,
McCarthy (1991: 149) contrasts discourses which are `heavily context-
dependent' with those which are more `freestanding' in terms of the language
used. Generally speaking, the language of an academic lecture has a lower
level of inexplicitness and is thus less context-dependent whereas the
language of a naturally-occurring conversation is more context-dependent
and hence has a higher level of inexplicitness.
Others in the field have described similar differences across genres. Biber
(1988: 143) uses the terms `explicit' and `situation-dependent' to describe one
aspect of the two-dimensional plot he employed to compare 22 genres,
`explicit' being references that can be understood without access to the
situation in which they occur. Elsewhere, Biber and Finegan (1989: 487±8)
discuss genres in terms of their use of elaborated (i.e. explicit) versus
situation-dependent (i.e. inexplicit) language, with the more formal planned
genres typically exhibiting more elaborated language and informal unplanned
genres more situation-dependent language.
We will now look at one of the ways in which the levels of inexplicitness
used by speakers both within and across discourses can be measured and
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 299
INEXPLICITNESS AND LEXICAL DENSITY
All forms of inexplicitness make a significant contribution to the `lexical
density' of a discourse (Ure 1971). Lexical density is a measure of the
proportion of lexical words, as opposed to purely grammatical items, in a text.
The distinction between lexical words and grammatical words is not always
clear cut but as long as the researcher is consistent this need not detract from
the usefulness of this measurement (Halliday 1989: 63). Typically, conversa-
tions have a lower lexical density (approximately 30 per cent according to Ure
1971: 446) than other spoken discourse types largely because of the greater
exploitation of the context by the participants. Stubbs (1996: 71±6) also
describes conversations as having a lower lexical density than other spoken
discourses, although the one conversation he examines has a higher lexical
density (36 per cent) than those analysed by Ure (1971).
A good example of an utterance with a low lexical density can be found in
extract 6 which takes place in a restaurant. When being asked what he would
like to have for lunch, B responds as follows (see line 4):
a: NNS male B: NS male
1 a: okay you want something er crispy you like spring roll fried
2 spring roll (.) some maybe we can go out and pick some of the
3 [things on the bench
4 B: [yea see what they have got there
This is a good example of an utterance that is unintelligible from the transcript
alone as a result of its low lexical density, but it is clearly not at all problematic
to the participants in the conversation. Such an utterance is typical of
conversations and is simply a speaker indicating what he wishes to eat by
pointing to a dish on an adjoining table. A more explicit and lexically dense
version of this utterance might be as follows:
what I would like to order for lunch is a plate of those aubergines
stuffed with fish meat which the people at the next table are eating
All the ways in which inexplicitness is realized in a discourse involve the
employment of grammatical items, or no items at all in the case of ellipsis,
which in turn lower the lexical density of the text. Inexplicitness, of course, is
not the only source of grammatical items in a discourse, but we claim that
there is a direct relationship between the lexical density of a discourse and the
level of inexplicitness employed by the speaker(s)/writer(s). This relationship
is inverse, the higher the level of inexplicitness the lower the lexical density of
the discourse. The existence of this relationship allows us to use the lexical
density of the utterances in a discourse as an initial measurement to describe
the levels of inexplicitness employed by the speakers.
In this study we set out to examine and compare the level of inexplicitness
manifested in the utterances of NSs and NNSs engaged in English
conversations. The questions which guided our research are given below:
1 Are NSs' conversational contributions more inexplicit than NNSs'?
2 What is the explanation for differences in the level of inexplicitness
manifested in the conversational contributions of NNSs and NSs of
3 What can be done to facilitate the practice and use of inexplicitness by
Ten hours (84,000 words) of conversational recordings taken from the Hong
Kong Corpus of Conversational English (HKCCE) were analysed for this
study. The HKCCE is a sub-corpus of the Hong Kong Corpus of Spoken
English housed in the English Department of the Hong Kong Polytechnic
University. It consists of fifty hours of spontaneous, naturally-occurring
conversations in electronic and digital formats. The sample database consisted
of 29 conversations involving 76 participants (42 NNSs and 34 NSs). In our
data 41,000 words (48.8 per cent) are spoken by NSs and 43,000 (51.2 per
cent) by NNSs, enabling us to make direct comparisons between the two sets
of speakers. The data were analysed by the researchers both qualitatively and
quantitatively to examine the ways in which inexplicitness was manifested in
LEVELS OF INEXPLICITNESS IN NS/NNS CONVERSATIONS
In this study, we were interested to compare the levels of inexplicitness used
by the two sets of speakers and we began by using the lexical density of the
utterances spoken by NSs and NNSs to initially gauge the level of
inexplicitness. Our interest was based on the premise that if inexplicitness is
a sign of a competent native discourser, then the lower the lexical density, the
more competent the speaker. Such a view is not without support in the
literature. In her work on vague language, Channell (1994) provides
convincing evidence that efficient and successful communication is enhanced
by speakers using vague words and expressions and we argue that the same is
true of speakers who are appropriately inexplicit. Lyons (1977b: 589), for
example, argues that an important component in the language competence of
a speaker is the ability to produce `grammatically incomplete, but contextually
appropriate and interpretable, sentence fragments'. Warren (1993: 37) also
suggests that being appropriately inexplicit is a sign of a competent
conversationalist and a prominent feature of NS English conversations. We
were interested therefore to find out if native speakers' utterances tend to
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 301
have a lower lexical density than those of NNSs because NNSs may on
occasion be overly explicit as a result of a lower level of communicative
competence. Our findings suggest that this is in fact the case. In the
conversations analysed, the NNSs had a lexical density which was approxi-
mately 25±30 per cent higher than that of the NSs (i.e. 28±30 per cent for NSs
versus 36±40 per cent for NNSs). Possible explanations for the higher lexical
density of NNSs will be examined in the following sections.
Table 1 below shows the frequency counts for each of the forms of
inexplicitness, namely ellipsis (subdivided into textual, situational and
structural), substitution, deixis, and reference found in the conversational
contributions of the two sets of interlocutors.
Given that the lexical density of the NSs' utterances was on average 25±30
per cent lower than that of the NNSs, it is not surprising to find that instances
of inexplicitness are fewer in NNSs' utterances than those of the NSs'. What is
surprising, however, is the consistency of the different levels of inexplicitness
found in our data. For all forms of inexplicitness, the NSs make use of
inexplicitness more often than NNSs, ranging from 27 per cent more in the
case of situational ellipsis to 44 per cent more for deixis. The uniformity of our
findings suggests that NNSs converse at a lower level of inexplicitness than
their NS interlocutors. We will now look at examples of this happening in our
data and offer possible explanations for this phenomenon.
We need to point out that while Table 1 provides evidence that NNSs
generally use lower levels of inexplicitness than NSs in our data, finding
instances of NNSs being inappropriate in their use of inexplicitness is
problematic because both NSs and NNSs on occasion choose not to be
inexplicit. This makes it difficult for a researcher to determine with absolute
certainty whether the level of inexplicitness employed is appropriate or not.
However, in the examples which follow we believe we have found instances
of NNSs being inappropriate in terms of the level of inexplicitness they
Table 1: Linguistic realizations of inexplicitness: NS versus NNS
Ellipsis: Substitution Deixis Reference
Textual Situational Structural
NS 829 3548 503 988 5453 2472
% (62.5%) (57.7%) (60.2%) (59.8%) (64.1%) (63.4%)
NNS 497 2605 332 664 3056 1430
% (37.5%) (42.3%) (39.8%) (40.2%) (35.9%) (36.6%)
Total 1326 6153 835 1652 8509 3902
In our study, there are examples of NNSs whose utterances often have a
higher level of redundancy than those produced by NSs largely as a result of
not using ellipsis or substitution to the same extent. In extract 7 the NNS is
more explicit than required on line 1 where he consistently says maid instead
of using ellipsis or a substitute item such as one, unlike the NS who employs
ellipsis on line 3.
a: NNS male B: NS male
1 a: what maid [Filipino maid or Chinese maid
2 B: what maid [mm
3 B: Filipino
In extracts 8, 9 and 10 one would expect the speaker to choose a deictic
expression or a reference item.
A: NS female b: NNS female
1 A: have you been this year (.) to Ocean Park
2 b: long time that I have not been to the Ocean Park already (.) I
3 asked my boyfriend to accompany me and he always sometime
4 had an excuse very hot outside then I said okay I mean probably
5 in winter or something we can go over there (.)
6 A: right
7 b: how about you
8 A: well I am going (.) maybe at the end this (.) at the end of
On line 2 of extract 8, b, instead of using a deictic expression, says the Ocean
Park, although this is not the case later on line 5 when she says there. It is
interesting to contrast b's utterance with A's on line 8 which contains an
example of ellipsis requiring the hearer to recover Ocean Park from the
A: NS female b: NNS female
1 A: um I like that soya sauce
2 b: really
3 A: it makes the rice more tasty
4 b: that's right that's good functions of the soya sauce
5 A: um um
In extract 9, A uses a reference item it (line 3) for the referent soya sauce but b
uses a lower level of inexplicitness by saying the soya sauce (line 4) rather than
using a reference item such as it or a deictic expression such as this.
a: NNS female B: NS female
1 a: this summer will you stay in Hong Kong in this summer
2 B: most of it cos I got quite a lot of work to do but um (.) then about
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 303
3 August I'll go to England
4 a: go back to visit your family
5 B: mmm
6 a: did you do you usually go back to England around August to
7 meet your family
In extract 10, a asks B two questions on lines 1 and 4 and then employs a low
level of inexplicitness on line 6 by recycling her first two questions within a
third question. a could have used a reference item and said, for example, do
you usually do that and have been more inexplicit as a result.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO LOWER LEVELS OF
INEXPLICITNESS BY NNSs
So far our analysis has focused on the forms that inexplicitness takes in our
data and the similarities and differences in the use of those forms between the
NSs and NNSs. We have found that there are a number of factors contributing
to the lower degree of inexplicitness in the NNS conversational contributions,
which may go some way to explaining the phenomenon.
A major factor which contributes to the inappropriate level of inexplicitness
used by NNSs in our data is their tendency to repeat all or part of the previous
speaker's utterance far more frequently than the NSs. Repetition is not a form
of inexplicitness; however, we argue that on occasion it can affect the level of
explicitness that is used. All speakers, whether native or non-native, repeat
what they themselves have just said or what others have just said. The role of
repetition in spoken discourse has been studied (see, for example, Tannen
1989) and certainly should not be automatically viewed as a lack of
communicative competence. It has been well documented in the literature
that the use of repetition for functions such as checking, exclaiming,
expressing involvement or interest is entirely appropriate (Tannen 1989:
However, as a possible point of difference, instances of what we term
`other-repetition', as opposed to self-repetition, were monitored in the sample
corpus. We use the term other-repetition when a speaker repeats all or part of
a previous speaker's utterance (see Table 2).
We are not concerned here with the functions performed by repetition;
neither have we distinguished between partial and full repetition of a previous
speaker's utterance. We have simply counted all instances of other-repetition
in our data on the assumption that the frequency of NS other-repetition is
appropriate for English conversations. We have found that NNSs are
approximately 2.5 times more likely to repeat all or part of the previous
It may be that repetition by NNSs contributes to the over-explicitness as
well as to the higher lexical density of their utterances mentioned earlier in
this paper. In the following, we discuss examples of NNSs repeating parts of
previous utterances, which leads to overly explicit utterances. This results in
higher lexical density than is normally expected, and utterances which are
longer than required for the purposes of the exchange.
In extract 11 below, instead of simply saying clerical staff, b tries hard to
provide a fuller answer, which involves repeating part of A's question. Blum-
Kulka and Olshtain (1986) suggest that the temptation to insist on `complete
sentences' in the language classroom may encourage this form of repetition in
which part of the question is unnecessarily repeated in the response.
A: NS male b: NNS male
1 A: what do you mean the Confidential Assistant
2 b: Confidential Assistant meaning is clerical is clerical staff
Extract 12 is another example of a NNS repeating a lot of the NS interlocutor's
utterances. The two speakers are discussing the percentage deducted from the
salary to pay for a flat. Each of b's utterances includes repetition of the
previous speaker's utterance.
A: NS male b: NNS male
1 A: she pays seven point [five percent
2 b: she pays seven point [she only pay seven point five percent
3 A: fifteen ( ) that's how much do they get a month fifty thousand
4 b: fifty thousand a month
5 A: Hong Kong
6 b: Hong Kong dollars fifty thousand dollars Hong Kong dollars a
7 month will be paid seven point five percent for a flat which is
8 about two thousand five hundred square feet
9 A: which on the private market would be
10 b: would be sixty thousand I think sixty to seventy thousand
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 305
Table 2: Frequency of other-repetition:
NS versus NNS
There are a number of repetitions in extract 12 but the most interesting one is
the utterance by b on lines 6±8. The only new information in this utterance is
for a flat which is about two thousand five hundred square feet; the rest has already
been said by A and repeated by b on lines 1±5. Blum-Kulka and Olshtain
(1986) suggest that, apart from `complete sentences', another explanation for
NNSs repeating excessively is that advanced learners of a language
concentrate on effective communication, compared to beginners whose
knowledge of the target language is limited. Ironically, this results in
beginners of a foreign language producing short, NS-like utterances, and
advanced speakers being overly explicit. Blum-Kulka and Olshtain's (1986)
studies of immigrants in Israel show that after a few years this tendency to
repeat in order to ensure the message is successful disappears and immigrants
become NS-like in terms of the amount of repetition and the length of their
utterances. The extract below shows one more example of repetition by a
A: male NS b: male NNS
1 A: yeah twelve storeys
2 b: oh twelve storeys
3 A: and four apartments forty apartments
4 b: oh forty apartment is it in is that um is that block in green colour
5 A: next block will be the green one
6 b: oh next block is the green one because the green apartment is
7 very prominent
On line 2, the NNS shows involvement or interest in a NS-like manner.
What is more interesting is his tactic of repeating a chunk of A's utterance on
lines 4 and 6 as a preface to what he actually wants to say. A plausible
explanation for this is that in the rapid fire turn-taking that can characterize
conversations, it may be a strategy for NNSs to use repetition as a turn-
holding device while they work out what they want to say and how they
want to say it.
There is also the cultural dimension which may influence what a speaker
considers appropriate in terms of other-repetition. Studies of repetition in
different cultures (see, for example, Erickson 1984; Johnstone 1987; Murata
1995; Tannen 1989: 78±80) suggest that repetition in spoken discourse may
be a cultural variable and this may well contribute to the high incidence of
other repetition by the NNSs in this study.
In addition to the issue of whether particular languages and/or cultures
demand higher or lower levels of inexplicitness, there is also the fact that
speakers may make assumptions about the comprehensibility of their
utterances based on different cultural schemata. In the following extract, b
is trying to describe to his Australian friend the size of a room.
A: NS male b: NNS male
1 A: how big would it be
2 b: well the room I think is about er (pause) sixty to seventy square
3 feet I think
4 A: so how big would that be ( )
5 b: about this size I suppose no no it's I think er (.) I think about this
6 um (.) this size (pause) maybe
7 A: this big
8 b: yea (.) from here maybe
9 A: yea that's good
On line 2, b employs a level of explicitness which might be suitable for fellow
Hong Kongers who are used to conceptualizing areas in square feet, but for
the Australian hearer it is an unfamiliar way to describe the area of a room.
The two speakers just do not share the same cultural schemata. b then
actually has to resort to less explicit language (this size, this um (.) this size on
lines 5±6; from here on line 8) in order to communicate the size of the room.
This example illustrates how cultures can differ in the explicitness with which
they represent certain types of information.
This is an interesting example because typically one might expect the
movement to be away from the use of inexplicit language rather than towards
it when there is a communication problem. It also illustrates the role of
language in contributing to the context in which meaning is created.
There are instances where the language of the NNS is inappropriately
inexplicit due to a lower linguistic competence on the part of the speaker.
This is exemplified in extract 15.
a: NNS female b: NS male
1 a: so when did you come here
2 B: you mean what time today
3 a: going to the City [no no no sorry you er City U =
4 B: going to the City [when did I (.)
5 B: = [join City U
6 a: = [when did you join City U
7 B: oh er 19 er 91
Extract 15 takes place in a restaurant at the university where the two speakers
are working. The two speakers joined the university at different times but
they had known each other before that. a's utterance on line 1 so when did you
come here has proved to be too inexplicit for B to comprehend. On line 2, B
asks for clarification before answering to establish the context-specific
interpretation of the referent here. It is then discovered on lines 3±6 that
here uttered by a was intended to mean CityU where the restaurant is situated
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 307
rather than the restaurant itself. a's question (line 1) is too inexplicit in this
context because she has not provided the required amount of information in
her utterance. On line 3, a is still having problems formulating an appropriate
question and eventually B does it for her on lines 4±5. This then seems to be a
case of a lack of linguistic competence hampering the speaker's ability to ask a
question such as so when did you start here or so when did you first start here,
which would have achieved a successful outcome and have been appro-
In the following extract the participants are discussing what food to take to
a party and the topic turns to moon cakes, a traditional Chinese cake. We join
the conversation when A asks b if she has bought one (i.e. a moon cake) on
A: NS male b: NNS female
1 A: so you bought one
2 b: yea I bought two (.) so I give one to my my er my sister but you
3 know mooncake is not a very (.) not most not many people are
4 very keen on the mooncakes
5 A: alright
6 b: so I better not bring mine mooncake
On lines 3, 4 and 6, b says mooncake or mooncakes rather than using a reference
item which lowers the level of inexplicitness of her utterance. The use of
mooncake on line 6 after mine is an example of the speaker confusing the
possessive pronouns of my and mine. The speaker's lack of linguistic
competence in this case results in her producing an utterance which is
grammatically as well as informationally too explicit.
The extracts examined so far have looked at NNSs experiencing problems in
being inappropriately inexplicit when they speak. In the next two examples,
taken from the same conversation, we look at problems of comprehension
which then leads to a low level of inexplicitness in the discourse. In extract
17, B uses the term shelf company which is not known to a and results in a
a: NNS female B: NS male
1 a: what kind of office
2 B: shelf company
3 a: what
4 B: shelf company you know shelf company like where you can put
5 your property for a while
6 and put tax through
7 a: oh I see
8 B: so use one of those companies but . . .
A: NS male b: NNS female
1 A: or another idea a business it's er like a barter business
2 b: what
3 A: a barter like barter I don't know what Chinese word you know if
4 I have a computer and you have a er an office desk
5 b: yea
6 A: you swap so you swap your desk for my computer I give you my
7 computer and you give me your desk
8 b: that means the exchange
9 A: yes exchange or barter barter was the original word er
10 b: mm how to spell it
11 A: b-a-r-t-e-r
12 b: b-a-r-t-e-r
13 A: in America it is a very big big business it's like
14 b: oh yea last time you mentioned about that
The NNS in extract 18 does not understand the term barter used by A on line 1
which then takes ten lines to explain in a very explicit way.
Transfer from L1
The last factor we describe is transfer from L1 (Cantonese) to L2 which can
give rise to language which is too explicit. In extracts 19 and 20, the NNS says
more than is required.
a: NNS female
1a: Chinese people (.) we (.) always have . . .
a: NNS female B: male NS
1a: = and Chinese people are now getting [very much into
2B: = and Chinese people are now getting [people are getting into
In both of these examples the speakers say Chinese people, which is a direct
translation from Cantonese where both Chinese and people are required. In
English, Chinese would be sufficient.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the following extract.
a: NNS female B: NS male
1 a: yes we have a nice view before you G_ and then some type yea
2 some erm other off- er the clerical officer is sitting in the room
3 and then at that time I found the wall is I think two years ago it's
4 more serious the wall is grey in colour
5 B: this wall
6 a: yes
7 B: well when I first came here when I came here J__ showed me
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 309
8 my room
9 a: yes
10 B: it was all mouldy and [grey the whole[thing
11 a: it was all mouldy and [yes the [whole thing grey in colour
12 B: and I told J__ I can't live in the office the way it is
Twice on lines 4 and 11, the NNS uses grey in colour, which is a direct
translation from Cantonese. It is interesting to contrast this expression with
the less explicit grey used by the NS on line 10.
IMPLICATIONS FOR LANGUAGE LEARNING AND TEACHING
Although inexplicitness is so prevalent a phenomenon in native English
speakers' conversations, it is rarely, if ever, formally taught to learners of
English. Very few textbooks incorporate the teaching and practice of
inexplicitness in order to meet the real life demands of communication.
One of the exceptions to this general observation is McCarthy (1991: 149±52)
who describes activities that vary the `context-dependability' of the language
produced by the language learners such as the occurrence of deixis.
We suggest that there are a few principles relating to the teaching and
learning of inexplicit language use which need to be borne in mind. The
teacher needs to be aware that the verbal exchange of information in any
classroom situation does not automatically equal natural language use. The
representativeness of the discourse setting, the discourse techniques and
strategies employed, and the actual language produced must be considered.
The teacher should avoid asking students to speak at inappropriate levels of
explicitness. To do so is unrealistic, unreasonable, and ultimately unhelpful if
students are to become competent conversationalists in English. Learners
should know that in communication, how far to be (in)explicit depend
heavily on factors such as the audience, sensitivity of information being
shared, or topic being discussed. Learners should be discouraged from
acquiring the habit of repeating large chunks of the previous speaker's
utterance, or maximizing talk for its own sake, which inevitably makes them
say more than is required in the context. Language activities should give
learners access to the full context of communication and encourage sharing of
knowledge among learners.
The activities suggested below are by no means exhaustive but point the
way for language teachers to adapt, develop, and invent materials for
familiarizing their students with the notion of inexplicitness as well as
enhancing their students' competence in the use of inexplicitness, depending
on the specific student needs. Awareness raising activities would include
analysing the levels of inexplicitness employed by writers and speakers in a
variety of written and spoken texts. Students need to be aware of the
widespread use of deixis, ellipsis, reference, and substitution in native speaker
discourse and the many possible realizations such linguistic forms can take.
Students then can discuss and compare examples of real-life discourses with
examples of their own writing and speaking in terms of their own use, or
underuse, of inexplicitness.
Apart from awareness raising, two examples for practice activities are
suggested below. Communicative-type activities such as `Spot the Difference'
(used here to illustrate a point and not necessarily as a suitable activity for
university students), with the students being denied access to both pictures in
order to maximize the talk, can encourage explicitness by providing practice
in operating at a very low level of inexplicitness. Conversely, use of
inexplicitness can be promoted by allowing the students to see both pictures
and to find the differences together. The researchers recorded pairs of students
performing this activity and noted marked differences in the levels of
inexplicitness employed, as the following extracts show.
a: NNS female b: NNS female
Participants with access to both pictures:
1 a: and er the picture in A er the little boy in picture A has a teddy
3 b: yea
5 b: er
6 a: and er in B she has a cake
7 b: yea she has something and put on her legs but on picture A there
a: NNS male b: NNS male
Participants denied access to both pictures:
1 a: what can you see then
2 b: um a a boy
3 a: a boy
4 b: outside the door
5 a: a boy outside the doorÐwhat what's he holding is it a doll is it a
7 b: [is he
8 a: [he's holding something right
9 b: no
10 a: he's he's not holding anything
11 b: yea
12 a: OK that's the difference mine's holding something
In extract 22, the language exhibits a high level of inexplicitness with a
very low lexical density, whereas extract 23 places the participants in a
situation in which a lower level of inexplicitness is required to spot the
differences between the two pictures resulting in lexically dense language.
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 311
In extract 22 line 1, a simple statement regarding the content of one picture
is enough for a to say that she has spotted a difference. This is repeated for
two more differences on lines 6 and 7 using a high level of inexplicitness.
For the speakers in extract 23, it takes twelve lines and a lower level of
inexplicitness to determine that a difference exists between the two
In the second activity the participants were asked to assemble a toy wagon
under very different circumstances which then very clearly impacted on the
resulting discourses in terms of the levels of inexplicitness. In extract 24, the
participants were jointly assembling a toy wagon. In extract 25, the
participants were sat back to back. In front of a was a picture of the assembled
wagon and in front of b were wooden pieces required to assemble the toy. a
gave instructions to b as to how to assemble the wooden pieces as shown on
a: NNS female b: NNS female
Participants completing task together:
1 a: I think these two things should be put [on the side
2 b: I think these two things should be put [[yea
4 a: which colour do you want to [er
5 b: which colour do you want to [I think the red the red one
6 a: how to I can'tÐcould it be
7 b: no no no change
a and b: NNS male
Participants denied access to each other's information of task:
1 a: there's four long pieces two is without you know two tw[o have got what what
2 b: [yes
3 a: some empty [(.) you just put these two on the two sides on the two sides on the
4 b: some empty [empty space
5 a: two sides of the =
6 b: = of the truck
7 a: yes of the truck
8 b: two sides what do you mean by two sides
9 a: the long sides [I mean the out outside most side of the truck
10 b: the long sides [oh
12 a: can you do it
13 b: yes
Extract 24 has a lower lexical density and a greater use of inexplicitness,
including ellipsis, substitution and reference. In fact extract 24 is not an
extract; it is all of the talk produced by the two participants to complete this
task. What is achieved in the first two lines of extract 24 takes the participants
in extract 25 twelve lines to complete. The discourse is further characterized
by higher lexical density, the use of self- and other-repetition and a much
lower level of inexplicitness.
In fact, most communicative `Information Gap' and task completion type of
activities can easily be converted from producing highly explicit language to
replicating highly inexplicit language if the participants are encouraged to
share information rather than withhold it, that is, if the participants are
allowed to integrate the physical context with language rather than being
denied access to the context. In addition, the video recordings and transcripts
resulting from these kinds of activities can be a useful resource for the kinds of
language awareness discussed earlier.
Of course this paper is not suggesting that all classroom talk should be
evaluated solely in terms of replicating levels of inexplicitness found in native
speaker conversations. Highly structured input of lexis and grammar, and the
controlled practice available through many communicative activities, are
invaluable in language teaching and are generally recognized as such by both
learners and teachers. The place of communicative language learning
activities in the classroom is secure, as they would appear to provide a
bridge between tightly prescribed activities such as drilling and the kinds of
activities suggested in this paper in which the teacher relinquishes control and
facilitates situations in which students can practise conversing in English more
appropriately and hence more inexplicitly.
Our findings provide evidence to suggest that while NNSs of English can
operate at appropriate levels of inexplicitness, there are also instances when
the conversational contributions of the NNSs are inappropriately inexplicitÐ
either overly explicit or overly inexplicitÐfor successful understanding and
communication. NNSs' inappropriate levels of inexplicitness have been shown
to be manifested in a generally lower incidence of the use of the linguistic
forms of inexplicitness, namely deixis, ellipsis, reference, and substitution.
Additional factors affecting the levels of inexplicitness found in NNSs'
utterances are a higher frequency of other-repetition, cultural schemata,
linguistic competence, and L1 transfer. The overall difference in the level of
inexplicitness employed by NNS has resulted in a relatively higher lexical
density in their utterances.
As for the reasons for differences in the levels of inexplicitness in the
conversational contributions between NSs and NNSs, a few tentative
explanations have been put forward. These are the lower level of
communicative and linguistic competence of the NNSs, L1 (Cantonese)
transfer, an overriding concern on the part of the NNSs with successfully
communicating meaning rather than with the appropriacy of the language
being used, and differences in cultural schemata.
WINNIE CHENG AND MARTIN WARREN 313
We suggest that the findings described have implications for English
language teaching and learning. Classroom activities both for raising learners'
awareness towards the use of inexplicitness and practising inexplicitness have
The findings of the study raise the question of what are the effects, if any,
on discourse meaning if a speaker is persistently producing utterances in a
conversation which are inappropriately inexplicit. Sinclair (1991: 497)
suggests that in language use, when something is obvious, it is optional and
`the more obvious it is, the less likely it is to occur, and the more marked for
meaning its occurrence'. If Sinclair's assertion is correct, then the NNSs are in
our study persistently using a marked level of inexplicitness in contexts where
an unmarked level is appropriate. Further research is needed to establish the
impact of this marked conversational behaviour by the NNSs on the
interpretation of their utterances by the hearer(s).
(Revised version received September 1998)
The work described in this paper was substantially supported by a grant from the Research Grants
Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Project No. G-S357). We are grateful to
our colleague Neil Drave for his input as a member of the overall project team. We are also
grateful for the comments of three anonymous reviewers on an earlier version of this paper.
1. Since this paper is concerned with the
ability to be inexplicit instead of thinking
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2. Quirk et al. (1985: 861) classify ellipsis in
terms of whether the full form is recover-
able from a part of the text (textual), the
extra linguistic situation (situational), or
through knowledge of grammatical struc-
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