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Vernacular EloquenceWhat Speech Can Bring to Writing$

Peter Elbow

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199782505

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199782505.001.0001

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Speaking and Writing as Mental Activities

Vernacular Eloquence

Peter Elbow

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This section explores the virtues of speech and how they can be brought to writing. More specifically, it considers speaking and writing as mental activities, rather than physical activities. It also discusses the early stages of writing where it is possible to do “unplanned speaking onto the page,” or using our “speaking gear” for writing—as in freewriting.

Keywords:   speech, writing, speaking, mental activities, freewriting, speaking gear, speaking onto the page

The argument of this book is simple: that we can enlist the language activity most people find easiest, speaking, for the language activity most people find hardest, writing. In Part One, I explored the potentialities of both ways of using language. I used just one chapter to explore the virtues of writing because there isn’t so much news there. I spent three chapters exploring the virtues of speech because they are far too little recognized.

Now I will explore ways to bring these virtues to writing. Here in Part Two, I focus on the early stages of writing where it is possible to do what I call “unplanned speaking onto the page,” or using our “speaking gear” for writing—as in freewriting. Then in Part Three, I will focus on the late revising stages of writing where we can harness the resources of the tongue by reading aloud.

More Defining

In the Introduction to Part One, I looked at the differences between speaking and writing along three dimensions:

  • Speaking and writing as different physical activities: moving our mouths versus moving our fingers;

  • Speaking and writing as different sensory modalities or media: language consisting of audible sounds existing in time versus visible marks existing in space;

  • (p.140) Speaking and writing as different linguistic products: the kinds of words that come from mouths versus from fingers. Here the difference is not so clear. If we consider the full range of language that humans produce, there is an almost complete overlap between what is spoken and what is written. But if we focus only on two common kinds of speaking and writing—casual conversation and careful expository prose—then there are rich and interesting differences between speech and writing.

Now I need to explore a fourth dimension in which speaking and writing can be contrasted: speaking and writing as mental activities, not physical activities. This distinction is central for my argument. And it happens to clear up a puzzle I mentioned earlier: when we dictate are we speaking or writing? Let’s look more carefully.

Consider some famous writers. Isocrates helped shape the earliest sense of written prose in the West, and like so many ancient “writers,” he seldom physically wrote. He mostly dictated spoken words to a slave. (Dictation was a common practice through much of antiquity, but scholars think that Isocrates occasionally did put stylus to papyrus himself. See W. V. Harris.) Milton was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost, and dictated it to his daughter. People in modern offices have traditionally dictated letters for secretaries to type. And now we can buy voice-activated software and just talk and the computer turns our audible speech into visible writing.

When people dictate letters, essays, poems, or other texts they are making noises with their mouths, but often they experience themselves mentally as writing. As they speak their words, they are mentally creating written sentences or written lines of a poem. They think about where the sentences begin and end; sometimes they speak the punctuation aloud (one of the options with voice-activated software). Should we say to Milton, “Face it, John, you didn’t write Paradise Lost, you spoke it”? Can we imagine that Milton let his daughter decide where to end his lines and how to punctuate? These observations fit my own experience too. I’ve sometimes written by dictating into a tape recorder or into my computer for a secretary, or used voice-activated software as I’ve just described—feeling my words as written sentences and sometimes seeing them in my head, even saying my punctuation aloud. I’ve been mentally writing.

(p.141) But this isn’t the whole story. Sometimes as I engaged in this mental process of careful writing, I got frustrated and tangled up trying to speak “sentences”—indeed, correct sentences—trying to speak written words. Sometimes I just gave up and said to myself, “The heck with this. I’m just going to talk.” So I just “let go” and stopped trying to “write.” I stopped thinking of my words as parts of a sentence. This gave me a completely different mental experience of using language. When I had been trying to dictate writing, I often had to pause and decide on the right word. But when I let myself dictate by just talking and I got going in the process, I no longer had to pause and often didn’t even choose my words. They just came—out of my mental sense of having something I wanted to say. In fact I often stopped having any awareness of the words coming out of my mouth as words; I just felt myself uttering thoughts or meanings. This different process produced an observably different product, different language. The words looked much more like casual speech.

So if we want an adequate understanding of how people use their mouths and hands for language (and if we want to understand borderline cases like dictation), we need to distinguish the inner mental process from the outer physical process. This distinction has been made by a prominent linguist, M. A. K. Halliday. When he discusses the obvious differences between casual speech and careful writing, what interests him are the inner, mental differences that usually accompany them. He uses the words “natural,” “un-self-monitored,” “flowing,” and “spontaneous” to describe the mental process we tend to use when we speak in casual safe conversation in real time without pausing or worrying. And he uses the terms “self-monitoring” and “controlled” and “self-conscious” to describe the more careful, deliberate, “choosing” mental process we tend to use for careful writing. In writing, we can pause as long as we want—ponder and change our minds—before deciding on a word or phrase or even a whole structure (“Spoken and Written” 66, 79).

By paying special attention to the mental dimension of how we produce language, Halliday shows that the mental and physical dimensions don’t have to match each other. That is, as we speak with our mouths, we don’t always natter along without pausing or choosing; we sometimes plan or rehearse or monitor our words (as in a job interview or dangerous argument). And as we write with our fingers, we don’t always choose words with care; we sometimes put out language in an unplanned or unselfmonitored or spontaneous way (as in some emailing, diary writing, and freewriting).

If it seems odd or unrealistic to talk about a mental language use that differs from a physical language use, I would insist that we see it every day in something (p.142) quite ordinary: “talking” inside our heads. Most people comfortably recognize that they speak mentally inside their heads while physically saying nothing.

In future references to these two mental processes of generating language, I will often allow myself some metaphors—imprecise of course, but helpful. (p.143) I like to say that we have a choice between two mental gears: a “mental speaking gear” and a “mental writing gear”—and we can use either gear whether we are physically speaking or writing. For example, in a job interview, we might start out comfortably chit-chatting in our speaking gear. But then the interviewer says, “Now tell me why you consider yourself qualified for this job.” Suddenly we have to downshift into our writing gear so we can use care in planning, choosing, and monitoring our words.

Conversely, when we are writing with our fingers—pausing and choosing words with care—we can decide to upshift into our speaking gear and let words roll out unplanned or unmonitored, sometimes almost of their own accord. We allow ourselves to write just as spontaneously and uncarefully as (p.144) we often do in safe conversation. This fluent process is what I’ll focus on in the next chapter where I treat freewriting. Freewriting is an exercise designed, among other things, to bump ourselves into the mental speaking gear as we write. It’s not that freewriting yields exactly the language of talking. But it harnesses the essential resource of talking that I’m interested in here: unplanned words.

There’s another metaphorical contrast that I find very helpful: uttering language (i.e., using the speaking gear) versus constructing language (using the writing gear). The word “utter” helps imply the mouth-based nonplanning spontaneous process we so often use in comfortable speaking. The words “construct” and “compose” imply the more careful hand-based mental process most people use when they consciously choose words and phrases. I often use this metaphor when I’m responding to student writing. I point to sentences that are particularly tangled and clogged and say something like this:

I found this sentence difficult and unpleasant to read. Notice how “constructed” it is. You would never utter a sentence like this. I sensed that as you were writing it, you paused or interrupted yourself quite often to ponder which words or phrases to use—or how the grammar ought to go. You chose words, but you didn’t then get them to follow the kind of comfortable clear sequence that is natural to your mouth. You haven’t broken any grammar rules, but your words don’t hang together. Try uttering your thought, and your sentences will be much clearer and more inviting for readers.

The Continuum between the Speaking Gear and the Writing Gear

My metaphors, speaking gear versus writing gear or uttering versus constructing, imply a binary, either/or choice. In the physical realm we’re pretty much stuck with a binary choice between using the mouth or the fingers; in a bike or car with gears, we’re in one gear or another. But in the mental realm, we have a full spectrum or continuum between our inner writing gear and our inner speaking gear—uttering and constructing—between full spontaneity and full planning. Whether we are speaking or writing, we spend lots of time at intermediate points—partly planning and partly blurting. Our choice among mental “gears” is not digital but analogue. As Halliday put it (in the previous box), (p.145) “[mental] speaking” and “[mental] writing” are “modal points on a continuum.” We sometimes sort-of monitor or “watch our language” but still go fast without much pausing or planning—or vice versa.

Still, activity along a busy gamut does not deny the reality of the terminal points at each end. For instance, in my dictating experience, I felt an abrupt change of mental gears from constructing to uttering when I stopped trying mentally to “write.” Suddenly I could stop thinking about words and let my mind focus on meanings, and the words took care of themselves. I stopped being conscious of what a sentence was—where it started and ended and how to punctuate it. As a result, I could find more words without struggle. It’s probably more accurate to say that I didn’t so much decide to engage my speech gear as disengage my writing gear. It was my writing gear that was distracting me and inhibiting language—even inhibiting thinking. The same thing happens in writing when I’m struggling to figure out how to say what I intend and choose my words—and I get slower and more stuck in molasses. Suddenly I remember I can just freewrite, and so I let go and let words tumble out; I seem to be able to “utter” my way through my perplexities. The process may not yield precise thinking, but it gives me words that will lead me to precision. And amazingly enough, occasionally precision is just what I get from the nonplanning.

Summing Up the Definitions

In the Introduction to Part One, I pointed out that when linguists look at a huge corpus of human discourse, they can’t find a clear dividing line between words that were spoken and those that were written. Humans are flexible. They can blurt unplanned language, whether speaking or writing—or “watch their tongues” in either modality.

Now in this Introduction to Part Two, I’ve shown where this flexibility comes from: it comes from the mental realm. We can engage in “mental speaking” and produce unplanned language—whether we use our mouths or our fingers; and we can engage in “mental writing”—and produce carefully monitored language—whether we use our mouths or our fingers. We have linguistic choices in our heads that need not be governed by the physical mode of producing language.

The theme of the book is choice. There’s almost nothing we can’t do with our fingers and our mouths and our minds. I’m fighting against too much material determinism. And I’m fighting too much cultural determinism—in particular about writing: let’s not be restricted by how our culture (or any culture) uses writing. (p.146)