Do not discount speech

Although writing holds great importance in society, it still falls short as superior to verbal communication.


Illustration by Trevor Lunde/THE CHIMES

Alan Hobbs, Writer

When written language originally developed, the rules of writing and powerful speech reflected the way of the nobles. Yet even now, in an era where monarchs typically hold little political authority, we act as though language still possesses this hierarchy. Despite what our primarily literary society seems to hold as true, speech is not inferior to writing.

Verbal Acceptability

If today is your birthday, you might say to your parents “My friend brought me a present” and your parents might respond with “What did they bring?” The rules of writing indicate the words “they, them and their” are plural pronouns or plural possessive pronouns, but in speech, these words can also act as the singular forms. 

Here, the word “they” refers to a singular person and correctly uses language. Perhaps to grammarians this violates English writing. Yet, “Uncle” Lloyd Peckham, professor of linguistics at Biola, believes “The purpose of language is to communicate feelings, intentions, information and to establish a basis of relationship between entities.” This indicates that if the message is clearly understood, the phrase is perfectly acceptable. 

Perfect Communication

Writing clings to the past, enforcing the correct use of “they” as plural. However, when it comes to the word “gentleman,” it does not. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “Mere Christianity,” “gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property.” Today, we use it as a compliment toward a man’s behavior. It is interesting that writing has chosen to leave the old definition of “gentleman” behind, yet it clings to the outdated definition of they, them and their as only plural pronouns. Language is constantly evolving and writing refuses to match its pace.

Writing and speech are both useful, but in different contexts. According to the Linguistic Society of America, writing is used more formally and does not receive immediate feedback from the reader. Although writing is most often associated with power and prestige, it still falls short as perfect communication. It may give the writer the chance to edit the content on paper, but this can eventually hinder the communication process. As the writer attempts to perfect the sentence, when someone finally reads it multiple times, they may still have no clue as to what it means. The sentence becomes so “perfect” it loses all meaning, and in the end becomes inefficient.

Natural Communication

Speech is casual, warmer and can be corrected as needed for clarification. It predates writing, indicating it is the natural form of communication. When children in the United States first learn language they begin by learning how to speak. Speech uses intonation and facial expression to add meaning, whereas writing cannot. In that sense, it is more effective than writing. 

Speakers determine language, not elites who create arbitrary rules. People across the U.S. use a variety of dialects, not one more correct than another. What is considered proper English does not necessarily reflect the true nature of its usage. 

The Purpose of Language

Writing is incredibly useful in many contexts and remains a powerful form of communication. Yet to dismiss communication expressed through speech as improper and regard writing as superior indicates a great lack of understanding of the purpose of language. Language is used to communicate clearly, and if speech must be used to clearly express an idea, then we must encourage it, not shame it.

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