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One Writer's Ravings:       A Logophile's Blog for Language Lovers      

Talk Is the Enemy of Writing

Some time ago I received this query from a reader: "Recently, I made my brother mad advocating that I don't use words in my writing if I don't use them comfortably in my conversation. I was following William Zinsser's plea from his book On Writing Well. However, in Glenda Winders' feature on your book The Accidents of Style you said that 'too many writers think they are supposed to write the way they speak, and what happens is they come out sounding silly, lazy, and full of accidents of style.' I'm confused."

This was my answer:

I think we are dealing with two separate questions here: (a) Is it acceptable to use words in your writing that you wouldn't comfortably use in speech? And (b) should we write the way we speak?

Depending on what sort of intellectual circles you travel in, it's unlikely that you'd have occasion to use words like fulminate, epicene, hortatory, tergiversation, and longanimity (all of which I discuss in the tenth level of Verbal Advantage) in your speech, but they are indispensable arrows in the quiver of the prose stylist. Would you ban these words from your writing simply because most people won't know what they mean if you say them aloud? Unlike speech, where the listener can feel put on the spot faced with a challenging word, the privacy of reading allows us to acknowledge that we don't know a given word and (I hope) look it up so we'll better understand the writer.

William F. Buckley Jr. was renowned (and sometimes reviled) for sprinkling his speech with unusual words like numinous and cacoethes, but often he was simply showing off, and he knew that the audience for his PBS-TV program (Firing Line) expected and enjoyed that. The rest of us, I think, should make choices about which words to use in conversation based on the people we're conversing with, not on whether we are comfortable with using them.

I'm certainly not advocating speaking down to anyone; quite the opposite, in fact. I'm saying it's appropriate to tailor your diction for the occasion, using what linguists would call a "register," a level of diction suited to the audience and the topic. You must take care, however, never to underestimate your audience; your register should always respect and sometimes challenge their intelligence. So use incessant, pugnacious, and eschew with highschoolers and palpate and iatrogenic with your doctor. Use wholesome at the healthfood store and self-righteous at your group therapy session, but use salubrious and sanctimonious at your literary salon.

The oft-heard advice that we should write as we speak is helpful up to a point, after which it is deadly. The inexperienced writer (a category that comprises most of the population) tends to become anxious when faced with the task of writing, so what comes out is usually stiff and stuffy and dense. To alleviate this anxiety, and avoid the clutter and verbosity that flow from it, writing teachers have long advised us to write the way we talk. That's fine if it relaxes us and enables us to think more critically about how we're expressing ourselves. But if we accept this precept as dogma, a guiding principle for all written expression, it deludes us into believing that the contrived informality, fuzzy thinking, vague or overblown diction, elisions, repetitions, catachreses, and pleonasms of speech are somehow virtues rather than vices in our writing. That's why in The Accidents of Style I frequently rail against this well-intentioned but misguided dictum, which inadvertently encourages laziness, sloppiness, and complacency.

As Jacques Barzun observes in Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, "Most speaking is not plain or direct, but vague, clumsy, confused, and wordy. . . . What is meant by the advice to write as we speak is to write as we might speak if we spoke extremely well." Thus, "Talk may be said to be the enemy of writing."
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