An Ear for Language
Write Like You Speak
the best writers dedicated themselves to duplicating the sounds
and rhythms of spoken language. Spoken language has long been
regarded as the best model for plain writing.
Although there are differences between spoken and written language,
they have a great deal in common. Good writers know how to bring
the benefits of speech into their writing.
Not just for hearing. The ear also governs balance, the sense
of position, voice, speech, language, and thought.
Speech is more efficient and streamlined than writing. In 1880, English
Professor Lucius Sherman of the University of Nebraska wrote in Analytics
Literary English, in short, will follow the forms of the standard
spoken English from which it comes. No man should talk worse than he
writes, no man writes better than he should talk
The oral sentence
is clearest because it is the product of millions of daily efforts to
be clear and strong. It represents the work of the race for thousands
of years in perfecting an effective instrument of communication.
The hearing structures in the brain govern written as well as spoken
language. The written word is a symbol of a sound, which is in the domain
of the ear. All language and most of thought is based on sound. All
written language points to a speaker. Even an isolated reader is engaging
in a conversation.
Sound advice from Rudolf Flesh
Rudolf Flesch spent his whole career showing us how writing should
reflect conversational English. His 1946 book, The Art of Plain
Talk, was a landmark in the history of plain language. In
chapters such as "Listen to Plain Talk," "The Grammar of Gossip,"
and "Follow the Language," he emphasizes that plain language is
all about how people talk.
In 1949, Flesch published The Art of Readable Writing.
A chapter called "An Ear for Writing," starts with this quote
from linguist E. H. Sturtevant: "Spoken language is the primary
phenomenon, and writing is only a more or less imperfect reflection
Rudolf Flesch: bringing the sound
of speech into writing.
Flesch went on to say:
The newest thing these days in college English teaching is
something called communication. The idea is that writing shouldn't be
treated any longer as a poor relation of English literature but as something
that has to do with the way we talk....
In short, the centuries-old struggle between literary and colloquial
English is almost over and Write as You Talk has become the almost
universally accepted rule.
But what does it mean to "write as you talk"? That's where the trouble
starts.... You can't actually write the way you talk. You can, however
put a reasonable facsimile of your ordinary talking self on paper. You
can purposely put into your writing certain things that will make it
sound like talk.
One of the handiest devices in English is the use of contractions such
as I'm, you're, you've, it's, isn't,
don't, won't, and let's. But don't use contractions
carelessly, says Flesch. You have to pay attention to how they sound
in the sentence.
According to Flesch, frequently referring to humans also creates and
holds interest. His own writing is the best example of this. He addresses
the reader directly with statements that continually bring the writer
and the reader into view:
In 1949, Flesch introduced, along with his Reading Ease formula, his Human
Interest formula. The formula uses the percentages of personal words
and personal sentences to determine human interest on a scale from 1 to
100. The most effective writing, wrote Flesch, includes both reading ease
and human interest.
- Now that we know what to do...
- This is, in a nutshell, the best advice you can get anywhere...
- This leaves us with Fowler's second rule...
- If you want to measure word difficulty, you have to...
- Let me show you how it is done...
- I have a notion that...
- Let me add a warning...
- Just to show you how...
A number of other researchers have also investigated the characteristics
of spoken language that benefit writing. They include:
- A sense of the immediacy of the audience and its needs and interests.
- A knowledge of the assumptions that are shared with the audience.
- Short sentences and simple syntax that do not require the audience
to decode complex clauses.
- A personal, direct style that uses familiar language and examples.
- Clear connections between the elements of the text.
- Breaks that invite audience participation and interaction.
In writing, breaks can include questions, summaries, overviews, sidebars,
headings, subtitles, numbered lists, captions, and illustrations. Breaks
focus attention and keep the reader involved. They draw the readers
into the text and give cues of how to fit new knowledge in with their
Good writers often read their texts out loud or, better, ask someone
else to read them out loud. For one thing, this forces writers to complete
a "read-through" of the entire text, the first step in proofing documents.
The ear can also spot problems that the eye cannot
Other benefits of reading aloud
In the 1980's educators in the U.S. began noticing that children
were arriving at school without the skills in spoken language
(both listening and speech) needed to learn reading and writing.
Support for Head Start programs greatly increased. Families were
encouraged to read aloud to their children. A flood of studies
showed how teenagers and adults also benefit from reading out
Never too early for reading: the ear is fully formed and functioning
by the fifth month of pregnancy.
Most school districts now have programs for children with listening
and speech problems. Besides that, reading aloud helps all students
improve language skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Students
too old for reading aloud.
Groups such as Read
Aloud America promote a lifelong love for reading and better school
performance by getting families to read aloud. Participants report that
71% of children spend less time watching TV and 70% report better attitudes
Reading aloud also charges the brains of adults. Some experts recommended
that adults read aloud 30 minutes a day. Reading advocate Steve
Leveen claims that reading to one another can transform the lives of adults,
improve their love life, and cement their relationships. Libraries such
one in Morton Grove, Illinois, offer lists of books to read to adults.
Love on a leash: a devoted listener in a Knoxville program.
|Animals, both domestic and wild, respond
positively to human speech. Not only do people often read to their
pets, but artists and writers claim they do their best work with
their pets around..
Don't be surprised if you find dogs in libraries and schools
these days. Dogs
trained especially for listening have a remarkable effect
on children with reading problems.
Many cities have programs featuring these attentive listeners.
Reading to pets improves the language skills and self-confidence
With the advent of radio, TV, and video, there is a much greater demand
for script writers familiar with the qualities of spoken language. These
new technologies have exploited the great efficiency of speech in communications.
They also remind us of the importance of speech to the printed word.
Plain Language in the News
|Report cards don't get
||A Seattle blogger complains about the lack of readability
and usefulness of report cards. This is a common complaint across
the nation. Read
|Readability of bone surgery
Web sites :
||The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery reports
that their medical Web sites are too difficult for average readers.
|Business startups and language:
||This blog for startups talks about the need for
simple English when addressing globalized markets. Read
|The battle for plain English in
||The Local Government Association in the U.K. publishes
a list of words that city councils should not use. Read
|The epic poetry of business jargon:
||The Plain English Campaign's annual awards given
for worst English. Read
|Going forward, the battle is lost:
||A German newspaper complains about the overuse of
"going forward." Read
|Making sense of political speech:
||A new dictionary gives explanations of what politicians
really mean. Read
|South Africa's new National
||The new act has a valuable definition of just what
constitutes plain language. Read
|Plain language undignified
for the Queen:
||Academics in the Netherlands fear plain language
not always suitable. Read
|A perfect storm of bad English:
||A Michigan university publishes a list of words
and phrases that should be banned. Read
|One in three adults in the Arab world
||Three-quarters of the 100 million people unable
to read or write in the 21 Arab countries are between 15 and 45
years old. Read
|Commas and right to bear
||Adam Freedman in the New York Times discusses the
confusing commas in the Second Amendment. Read
For a free consultation, call today:
William H. DuBay
126 E. 18th Street #C204
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
Phone: (949) 631-3309
© 2008 William H. DuBay