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Writing and speech

Posted by R. Berg on July 24, 2004

In Reply to: A Japanese thing? posted by Word Camel on July 24, 2004

: : : : : : : : While responding to the Dominion thread it occurred to me that I tend to write as a I speak. There is some censorship, cos if I'm feeling really lazy, I usually drop a few swear words when I'm speaking (as mentioned in that thread) - so you've been spared. But I notice that generally I do write as I speak, although as I am a technical writer (or documentation specialist if you prefer), I can do a sort of schizophrenic backflip and change my writing style when required for the professional documents I produce. The reason I do this, is because the audience for those documents will be greater and more varied, so I have to ensure that the documents can be clearly understood by a broad range of people.

: : : : : : : : However, I still write as I speak when producing internal reports, etc. Because I'm a country girl, I suppose I speak that way, and thus write that way. I find this disarms most 'professional' people, gets their attention, and almost always works my way.

: : : : : : : : But I notice that most people I work with anyway, do not write as they speak. They do that schizo thing I mentioned before and their reports, memos, etc. are written in a way they would never speak. I recognise, that part of the reason is that once in writing, if you're not careful, it can be used against you.

: : : : : : : : But is this insecurity, or is it simply that the written word highlights flaws - or both? It's funny that when many of us speak, we're quite relaxed about saying things like, 'cos, 'gonna' or 'lemme', but we wouldn't dare write it. We'd write 'because', 'going to' or 'let me'. Now again, I have to admit to some censorship, because I wouldn't include the above slang words in any professional document either. Furthermore, even forgetting laziness such as those examples, when many of us write, we actually construct our sentences differently to the way we would verbalise them. That's where I don't censor. My sentences are constructed in the same way I would say them.

: : : : : : : : I've also noticed that some people simply can't, or can't bring themselves, to write as they speak. They MUST change their mode. Why do many of us have two standards and cannot cross the line? The written word and the spoken word? Was writing as we speak beaten out of some of us at school?

: : : : : : : I think part of the reason we don't always write as we speak because we want to be clear. Verbal communication has inflection and tone to help to convey meaning. I also think written language has a beauty all its own. It conveys things we might think but probably wouldn't actually say. "Shall I compare Thee to a summer's day?..." I wonder if anyone would ever utter those words in the course of conversation? They're still lovely though.

: : : : : : : I've also noticed some people are intimidated by having to write things down and are overly formal as a result. I had an insecure boss in the UK who would edit my business letters so that they ended with the phrase "Assuring you of my most sincere desire to be of service at all times". I had a deal with the secretary to change it back to "Yours sincerely," before it went out.

: : : : : : : Also, 'cos', 'gonna' and "lemme' aren't actually words. If someone wrote me a serious communication using those (that is, not a personal letter or email where they were using it tongue in cheek), I'd assume they were poorly educated.

: : : : : : Agreed, which is why I said I wouldn't include such words in a professional document either. But I suppose the point I'm making is that many people become different people when they write. How they write a message can be radically different to the way they'd tell it.

: : : : : Even though I used to work with a chap nearing retirement who would still say "Thank you for your letter of 14th ultimo" or "inst." and was fond of saying that unbecoming behaviour was "infra dig", even he refrained from "Rest assured of my prompt attention at all times". That is crawling of the nth degree. You may as well write "With tongue prepared for any crevice of your choosing". I can hardly believe somebody would pull that "obedient servant" stuff these days - it is so false, or if not false, servile, that rather than endear, shrieks "I'm insincere!"

: : : : : [shudders]

: : : : : There is added formality to written communications, but in part that is because we enjoy language enough to want to use it well. One does have the opportunity to craft written sentences, whereas spoken ones can rarely be effectively edited.
: : : : : (FWIW I do use the likes of "whereas" in spoken conversation - it is not an affectation.)

: : : : : at least with the spoken word, we do not need to check for capitalisation of initial letters and
: : : : : speeling.

: : : :
: : : : Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, political and personal enemies in the early part of the 19th Century, exchanged a series of letters accusing one another of every sin and crime imaginable, from treason to adultery to bad grooming. Of course, every letter concluded "Assuring you of my desire to remain your most obediant servant" or the like. These courtesies came to an end in 1804 when Burr slew Hamilton in a duel with pistols.

: : : I've noticed people make a great effort not to appear stupid when they put word to paper. This most often manifests in the passive voice. There seems to be two reasons for this gobbly-gook. First, folks want to appear impressive with their prose. Second, many people lack the confidence in their writing skills to write simple sentences. Additionally, I suspect there is an x factor in sloppy, cumbersome constructions. It's the teachers fault. Kids are smart and always looking for an angle to get out of work. So, when teachers ask for a 500, or 5000, word essay, the easiest thing for students to do is switch to the passive voice. The loopy, round-about passive voice can beef-up the word count of an assignment faster then you can say, "where is the Cliff's Notes for Great Expectations". Assuring you of my desire to remain your most humble servant, Platypus.

: : As a government employee who has written many letters and memoranda for my agency, I can testify to another reason for writing in the passive voice -- to avoid taking responsibility. Listen my children and you will learn. If I write in response to an inspector "The Office of Equine Security (OES)closed, locked, and bolted the barn door", and it is later shown that the door was not bolted, OES has screwed the pooch. But if I say "The barn door was closed, locked, and bolted." no specific organization or individual is exposed to the unreasonable expectations of others. I'm happy, my boss is happy and the horse (wherever he may be) is happy.

: I have noticed that a few of the novels by Japanese authors I've read, translate into passive voice. In one case it was so grating I was unable to finish. (The House of Nire by Morio Kita). I'm guessing it is a cultural thing and not simply poor translation. The book in question sits there on my shelf daring me to pick it up again. It's a pity because in all other respects it's interesting.

This is pretty close to the right answer: People don't write as they speak because they speak as they think but they don't write as they think. I'm gonna do this post ad lib to show you what I mean. When you talk, the words come out fast. You don't edit much. Writing is different. You move things around. Fragments not OK, so you combine them and make sentences. Written English and spoken have never been the same. I mean, the same as each other. No editing here, I just typed fast the way I would say it, pretty much (hard not to do ANY rearranging). Aren't you guys glad I don't write like this all the time?