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.


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.


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.

How Winston Churchill learned English

I continued in this unpretentious situation for nearly a year. However, by being so long in the lowest form [at Harrow – see below] I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell–a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great–was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing–namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence–which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English, I would whip them hard for that.
(My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Thornton Butterworth [UK] and Charles Scribner’s Sons [US], 1930)

The first five years of English secondary schooling were previously known as forms. Pupils started their first year of secondary school in the first form or first year, and this was the year in which pupils would normally become 12 years of age. Pupils would move up a form each year before entering the fifth form in the year in which they would have their sixteenth birthday. Those who stayed on at school to study for A-levels moved up into the sixth form, which was divided into the Lower Sixth and the Upper Sixth.
Sixth Form

Richard Nordquist on parsing sentences

How Ben Franklin taught himself to write

There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words, and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I owed to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned then into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

S.M.’s cohesive passage

Here is a terrific passage from one of S.M.’s papers:

In “ Mercury and The Woodman,” we meet a very hardworking woodsman, and a jealous woodsman as well. In “ The Milkmaid and The Pail,” we are introduced to a girl who wants to accomplish her dreams just like most of us want to do today. Last but not least, in “ The Old Man and Death,” the old man is so horribly poor that he wishes Death upon him and ends up regretting what he has wished for.

Remember: Martha Kolln, in her book Rhetorical Grammar, explains three methods of creating cohesive paragraphs:

  1. The subject of all or most sentences in the paragraph is the same.
  2. In each two-sentence pair, information included in the predicate of the 1st sentence becomes the subject of the 2nd sentence.
  3. In paragraphs of description, a list of details follows the topic sentence.

S.M. has used a variant of #3 to link her first two examples. Then she  uses the expression last but not least to signal her 3rd and final example. Very nice!

Coming up: the known-new contract. Each sentence begins with the known and ends with the new.

Sentence Cohesion – excerpt from Rhetorical Grammar
Kolln, Martha J. Rhetorical Grammar:
..Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects.
Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

Present-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

A horse belonging to a man in northern China runs away, and when everyone consoles the man his father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Months later the horse returns accompanied by a “splendid nomad stallion,” and when people congratulate the man his father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Later, when the man breaks his hip falling off the horse, and people again try to console him, the father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” A year later nomads attack and slaughter nearly all of the able-bodied man who must fight them. Because the son is lame, he and his father survive “to take care of each other.”

Blessings turn to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, and the mystery cannot be fathomed.

Past-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

The “literary present” in English papers

X-1-2-3 at Cost of College

My friend Grace, who writes the Cost of College blog, has written several posts about William J. Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method:

The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’


Step 3 – Completing the ‘sentence stack’

Step 4 – Being SPECIFIC


Step 4 – Going into DETAIL

Step 4 – Using EXAMPLES


Step 4  Function of a Paragraph

AND SEE: Writing, writing, writing