Speaking written English/writing spoken English

Many years ago (the early 1990s), I read a synopsis of a paper written about the communication habits of people attending a science fiction convention (back when such conventions were at least as much about written SF/F as about movies/TV). The woman who wrote the paper was not a science fiction fan herself, and she was surprised to observe that many of the convention-goers tended to, as she put it, speak written English: they used very correct grammar and big words, they over-enunciated, and sometimes they pronounced words based on spelling rather than how such words are normally spoken.

Aha! I thought. This is what I’ve been trying to find a way to explain…

When I was a kid, I thought that the reason I “talked funny” was that people learn their speech patterns from whomever they’re around the most, and I spent far more time with books than with humans. (I’ve gotten “better” since then, due to years of deliberately developing protective camouflage. I still don’t have an accent “appropriate for my socioeconomic status,” though; I still say you don’t have any — or worse yet, you haven’t got any — instead of y’ain’t gut’nuh.) Even learned use of incomplete sentences from reading fiction by authors who knew how to make that work.

So… I spoke written English. Still do, to some extent. I use the word ubiquitous in normal conversation (blame The Muppet Show for that), say different from instead of different than or different to (’cause I understand what the word different means), and sometimes even pronounce all the syllables in medieval (and get angry at people who think it’s mid-evil).

What I see these days (it probably always happened, but I didn’t start noticing it until it became relevant to my career) is that a lot of writers, especially newbies, write spoken English. This is not necessarily a bad thing in small doses. Writing is supposed to sound natural (by whatever definition of natural is in vogue on any given day), especially dialogue, and most people don’t use perfectly correct grammar all the time. However, writing spoken English becomes a problem when, for example, a novelist writes could of instead of could have. “My characters aren’t grammar nazis and don’t care how ugly college-educated people spell it,” is not a valid reason to write could of. Unless you’ve written a personal diary or other actual writing by the grammar-challenged character, spell words the way they’re spelled, not how the character thinks they’re spelled. Don’t use garbled grammar unless it’s in dialogue (or first-person narration) from a character who speaks that way. You’re not the POV character; your job as the writer is to be comprehensible.

 

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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8 Responses to Speaking written English/writing spoken English

  1. Preach this from the mountain tops!!! And yes, I tend to speak based on my voracious reading habit. There really should be support groups for this problem!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m with you there! Mine is really apparent, considering that I speak nigh-perfect English on an island crowded by Spanish speakers. Between you and me, it always feels great when people compliment my esoteric use of language!

    Let the linguistic peasants bow before our feet!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m completely with you. Everywhere I go here in the UK, they tell me I sound posh despite the fact I grew up in one of the more “common” areas. Now that would be fine if only I didn’t just sound like I was from money and actually had some so I could write full time…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Steve D says:

    Ugh “could of” is one of my pet peeves. My theory is that social media has made us lazier 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for identifying a ubiquitous problem in writing. For years, I taught mathematics to English Learners so this is a sensitive subject for me. Vocabulary is important. Words matter. There is a difference between public and private voice and when and how they are used.

    P.S. I, too, have been teased for the way I pronounce some words (I say “catsup” instead of “ketchup.”)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ziresta says:

    How are you supposed to pronounce “medieval” if not like “midevil”? I was taught to say it that way. Of course, I was also taught that “Pacific” and “specific” were homophones and that “Tutankhamen” is pronounced “Took-an-autum”, so . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • The first syllable is an e, not an i. Even if you don’t pronounce the middle syllable at all, saying “med-eval” instead of “mid-evil” does make a difference. (It helps prevent death threats to historical reenactors by woefully under-educated and overly religious types, if nothing else.)

      Like

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