I, Like, Speak Like, You Know

criticism of young peopleAbout a year ago, and I am not making this up, I was in a shop somewhere and someone said to me, “Are you a writer? You look like one.” They didn’t mean someone famous, because honestly, how many writers would anyone recognize? They just meant in general sort of way, and I thought Hmm, could it be because I have a look of tantalizing sophistication and my eyes express a quiet wisdom? Then I realized it was probably because I forgot to brush my hair, my shirt had stains on it, and I was looking around like “where am I?”

I’ll take either one, however. I claim my identity as a wordsmith, which has been hard come by. Wordsmithery is not a skill I was born with, of course. No baby comes into the world knowing how to spell “abstemiousness” or how to punctuate a dependent clause. It has been a slow slog learning all that stuff, yet here we are, the quintessence of an audacious linguophile. According to myself.

Back when I was applying my love of well-crafted language in the most ironic fashion possible (teaching college writing), a few times I had a student who said, “I write like I speak.” I’m not sure now whether such a student wanted to justify their style as authenticated by the speech learned at dear mama’s knee, or whether they were trying to explain why they were so goddamn awful.

In any case, they were mistaken. No one writes like they speak. They may be heavily influenced by day-to-day speech, so that they think “I would have” is supposed to be “I would of” but once the letters appear on the page (or screen, these days), it’s another world. Other than for literary purposes, or when very drunk, most writers are at least trying to adhere to what they consider “proper” writing.

Writing is extremely different from speaking, and I’m not even addressing the point that writing is as artificial as a business suit, a social invention. Speech, on the other hand, is natural in the sense that every person is born with that capacity. So when we write, no matter what we write, we are riding on a different kind of donkey from the one that bounces us down the road during a nice chat.

To take one quick example of the difference, a written sentence, with rare exceptions, must always have a subject and a verb. If it does not, we have a term for that—sentence fragment, i.e. only part of a sentence. I guarantee you the concept of a sentence fragment did not exist before the invention of writing. In speech, we absolutely don’t think about that.

The sentence fragment is an example of the difference between speaking and writing, but there are bigger differences than just sentence construction. Because writing can be edited, it is more logical and has far less repetition than speaking. In addition to all these edited differences, no writing is ever truly like speech anyway, because real speech sometimes sounds like this:

  • “well she was— let me tell you about her, I mean, if you, or anybody was asking…”
  • “uh, well, I’m, don’t know, yeah I don’t know about that, since we’re going…”

Speech is often full of incoherent noise and starts and stops and thinking. Only some college freshman essays are like that.

When fiction writers create dialogue, the question arises, or should arise, as to how to make the writing sound like someone is really talking. Inexperienced writers may not do this well, making their characters always speak in perfect edited sentences, which is, um, not like how people talk, you know?

The trick in fiction is to create the illusion of speech. You can’t really write exactly like people talk, as that would often be gobbledygook, and you want the dialogue to be understandable as well as carry the story forward. So as a fiction writer you learn some tricks to make the dialogue sound occasionally broken, interrupted, or paused for thought, but you always pay attention to how well the basic message is coming through.

So we’re like, uh, you know, and stuff.

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