THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN …

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SPOKEN WORD.
Or is it?

by Josef Essberger

The purpose of all language is to communicate – that is, to move thoughts or information from one person to another person.

There are always at least two people in any communication. To communicate, one person must put something “out” and another person must take something “in”. We call this “output” (>>>) and “input” (<<<).

  • speak to you (OUTPUT: my thoughts go OUT of my head).
  • You listen to me (INPUT: my thoughts go INto your head).
  • You write to me (OUTPUT: your thoughts go OUT of your head).
  • read your words (INPUT: your thoughts go INto my head).

So language consists of four “skills”: two for output (speaking and writing); and two for input (listening and reading. We can say this another way – two of the skills are for “spoken” communication and two of the skills are for “written” communication:

Spoken:
>>> Speaking – mouth
<<< Listening – ear

Written:
>>> Writing – hand
<<< Reading – eye

What are the differences between Spoken and Written English? Are there advantages and disadvantages for each form of communication?

Status

When we learn our own (native) language, learning to speak comes before learning to write. In fact, we learn to speak almost automatically. It is natural. But somebody must teach us to write. It is not natural. In one sense, speaking is the “real” language and writing is only a representation of speaking. However, for centuries, people have regarded writing as superior to speaking. It has a higher “status”. This is perhaps because in the past almost everybody could speak but only a few people could write. But as we shall see, modern influences are changing the relative status of speaking and writing.

Differences in Structure and Style

We usually write with correct grammar and in a structured way. We organize what we write into sentences and paragraphs. We do not usually use contractions in writing (though if we want to appear very friendly, then we do sometimes use contractions in writing because this is more like speaking.) We use more formal vocabulary in writing (for example, we might write “the car exploded” but say “the car blew up”) and we do not usually use slang. In writing, we must use punctuation marks like commas and question marks (as a symbolic way of representing things like pauses or tone of voice in speaking).

We usually speak in a much less formal, less structured way. We do not always use full sentences and correct grammar. The vocabulary that we use is more familiar and may include slang. We usually speak in a spontaneous way, without preparation, so we have to make up what we say as we go. This means that we often repeat ourselves or go off the subject. However, when we speak, other aspects are present that are not present in writing, such as facial expression or tone of voice. This means that we can communicate at several levels, not only with words.

Durability

One important difference between speaking and writing is that writing is usually more durable or permanent. When we speak, our words live for a few moments. When we write, our words may live for years or even centuries. This is why writing is usually used to provide a record of events, for example a business agreement or transaction.

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