What is writing made of?

In her book The Writing Life (1989), Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” ” ‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’”

Excerpted from How To Write A Sentence by Stanley Fish. Copyright 2011 by Stanley Fish. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Writing is made of sentences (and sentences are made of clauses).

Serving chili

TRANSCRIPT of a family conversation

Setting: A family of four is sitting down to dinner
Participants: P = the mother, J = the father, D = their 20-year-old son, M = their 17-year-old son

D1: Mom, I, give me a rest, give it a rest. I didn’t think about you. I mean, I would rather do it. <unclear> some other instance in my mind.
P1: Yeah, well I can understand you know, I mean <unclear> Hi I’m David’s mother, try to ignore me.
D2: I went with a girl like you once. Let’s serve this damn chili.
M1: Okay, let’s serve the chili. Are you serving or not dad?
J1: Doesn’t matter.
P2: Would you get those chips in there. Michael, could you put them with the crackers.
J2: Here, I’ll come and serve it honey if you want me to.
P3: Oh wait, we still have quite a few.
D3: I don’t see any others.
P4: I know you don’t.
D4: We don’t have any others.
P5: Yes, I got you the big bag I think it will be a help to you.
J3: Here’s mom’s.
M2: Now this isn’t according to grandpa now.
P6: Okay.
M3: The same man who told me it’s okay <unclear>
P7: Are you going to put water in our cups? Whose bowl is that?
M4: Mine.
P8: Mike put all the water in here. Well, here we are.
J4: What.
P9: Will y’all turn off the TV.
J5: Pie, I’ll kill you, I said I’d take you to the bathroom.
P10: Man, get your tail out of the soup – Oh, sorry – Did you hear I saw Sarah’s sister’s baby?
M5: How is it?
P11: She’s cute, pretty really.

Biber, Douglas, Conrad, Susan, and Leech, Geoffrey. Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited, 2002. (Print.) (428-429).

From time to time I’ve heard it said that people should “write the way they talk.”

For most of us that would be a very bad idea indeed.

Talking vs writing

One reason why writing is so much harder than talking is that the grammar used by writers is quite different from the grammar used by talkers, as you can see in the conversation below. All native speakers of any language have had enormous amounts of practice using the grammar of spoken language.

We’ve had far less practice using the grammar of written language.

A sample stretch of talk

…speakers are sitting at the dinner table talking about a car accident that happened to the father of one of the speakers

< speaker 1 >  I’ll just take that off. Take that off.
< speaker 2 >  All looks great.
< speaker 3 >  [laughs]
< speaker 2 >  Mm.
< speaker 3 >  Mm.
< speaker 2 >  I think your dad was amazed wasn’t he at the damage.
< speaker 4 >  Mm.
< speaker 2 >  It’s not so much the parts. It’s the labour charges for
< speaker 4 >  Oh that. For a car.
< speaker 2 >  Have you got hold of it?
< speaker 1 >  Yeah.
< speaker 2 >  It was a bit erm.
< speaker 1 >  Mm.
< speaker 3 >  Mm.
< speaker 2 >  A bit.
< speaker 3 >  That’s right.
< speaker 2 >  I mean they said they’d have to take his car in for two days. And he says All it is is s straightening a panel. And they’re like, Oh no. It’s all new panel. You can’t do this.
< speaker 3 >  Any erm problem.
< speaker 2 >  As soon as they hear insurance claim. Oh. Let’s get it right.
< speaker 3 >  Yeah. Yeah. Anything to do with
< speaker 1 >  Wow.
< speaker 3 >  coach work is er
< speaker 1 >  Right.
< speaker 3 >  fatal isn’t it.
< speaker 1 >  Now.
from:  Teaching about talk – what do pupils need to know about spoken language and the important ways in which talk differs from writing? by Ron Carter

AND SEE:
Linguist Jim Miller on talking vs writing.

Talking vs. writing, part 2

Linguist John McWhorter on talking versus writing:

Writing was only invented roughly 5,500 years ago with the emergence of cuneiform picture writing in Mesopotamia, what is now Iraq and parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey, whereas humanity arose a good 200,000 years ago, with language probably tracing back at least 50,000 years and most likely much further. According to one estimate, if Homo sapiens had existed for 24 hours, writing only came along after 11 p.m.

Thus spoken language is fundamental, while written language is an artifice. Not surprisingly, then, the earliest writing was based on the way people talk, and that meant short sentences with a direct logical throughline. Researchers have found that even educated people today speak in word packets of 7 to 10 words a pop.

Talking with Your Fingertips
April 23, 2012
Opinionator

Talking is old, writing is new.

(comma splice intentional)

Talking vs writing, part 1

[A]ny written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary. In spite of the huge prestige enjoyed by written language in any literate society, spoken language is primary…

- Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.

Longer excerpt here

Jim Miller on talking vs. writing

Teaching English 109, I’m often struck by the fact that talking is easy, but writing is hard.* Why is that?

Here is linguist Jim Miller on the subject:

Many kinds of spoken language … have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing….[T]he differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary.

[snip]

The syntax of spontaneous spoken language has been ‘designed’ or ‘developed’ to suit the conditions of speech – little planning time, the possibility of transmitting information by loudness, pitch and general voice quality, and support from hand gestures, facial expressions and so on (what is known as ‘non-verbal communication’). …[T]he syntax of spontaneous speech overlaps with the syntax of formal writing; there is a common core of constructions. For instance, “The instructions are useless” could be spoken or written. However, many constructions occur in speech but not in writing, and vice versa. “She doesn’t say much – knows a lot though” is typical of speech, but typical of writing is “Although she does not say much, she knows a lot.”

The special syntax of spontaneous spoken language is not produced just by speakers with the minimum of formal education. One of the most detailed investigations of spoken syntax was carried out in Russia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speakers recorded on tape in all sorts of informal situations were doctors, lawyers and academics, but their speech turned out to be very different in syntax from written Russian. Moreover, their syntax had general properties which have turned up in bodies of spontaneous spoken English, French and German.

[snip]

People learn the syntax and vocabulary of formal writing from books and in school in a process that lasts into the early twenties for university graduates and can continue much longer. In general, the more exposure speakers have to formal schooling, the more easily and frequently they use in speech the syntax and vocabulary that are typical of formal writing.

Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.

And see: a transcript of a conversation.

*Obviously, talking isn’t easy for everyone. People with autism have trouble talking; people who’ve had strokes may have trouble speaking; etc. And talking in a foreign language takes years of practice to do well.