February 27, 2004


A certain grammatical point I was teaching to my English writing class started me thinking about the place of writing in people’s day-to-day lives. First the grammatical point itself.

I was teaching my students about when to use that and when to use which to introduce a relative clause. The rule of thumb that is oft repeated is to use that if the relative clause is restrictive (restricting the meaning of the noun it modifies and thus essential to the meaning of the sentence) and which if the clause is nonrestrictive (adding additional information and thus not essential to the meaning of the sentence). Of course this is a prescriptivist rule that can be traced back to Fowler. In practice the distinction is not so clear cut. But what I told my class is that if they follow this rule they’ll never be wrong. It’s an arbitrary rule, but written language is filled with arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with the deeper structure of language.

Although the human brain seems to be wired to learn spoken language automatically, written language is an artificial skill, and thus we must follow artificial and often arbitrary rules in order to communicate effectively in writing. Indeed, I constantly have to remind my students not to write in spoken idioms. They very naturally write in an almost conversational tone.

This made me speculate about the perception of the different registers of language. My theory is that people of a younger generation (at least younger than me) are in many ways better able to express themselves in writing, or at least they are less intimidated by it because they grew up in a world of the internet, e-mail, blogging, instant messaging, etc. If nothing else, they are more naturally prolix. However, they have a harder time differentiating between spoken language and written language, because communications such as e-mail and blogs exist in a liminal state between speach and writing. The boundary between spoken language and written language is much fuzzier. People of my generation or older probably didn’t write as much when younger, certainly not as much in informal contexts, because we didn’t have an output like e-mail. For this older generation, written language was more restricted to formal contexts. Certainly there was letter writing, but not in the same quantity as there is e-mail, and I imagine that letter writing was already in decline long before e-mail anyway. Thus, while those in the older generation may not have as natural approach to writing, they are more aware of the difference between spoken and written language.

Well, that’s my theory anyway. I’d be interested to hear what others thought, particularly those who write blogs. Do you write in the same register that you speak in? I find it very difficult to bring myself to write in anything other than a written idiom.

Getting back to the starting off point for this train of thought, how do others use that and which in spoken and/or written contexts? I’d be particularly interested to know if usage guides like Fowler are still used by magazine or newspaper editors (a question that perhaps Alasdair or Sue could answer for me). Or is this sort of thing just left up to the individual writers? Is a breakdown in the diffentiation between spoken and written language being felt in such written contexts?

The irony of all this is that one of my lines of research that I’m particularly working on right now is discourse analysis which is essentially taking a theory linguists developed by studying spoken language and applying it to written text. It is particularly applicable to medieval literatures because they are closer to their foundations in oral traditions, again in a liminal state between spoken and written language. It’s sort of the reverse of e-mail, but with perhaps similar results.

Posted by Mark at February 27, 2004 02:46 PM

As a working editor, I find it an easy shortcut to tell people that, if a phrase is set off by commas, use ‘which’; if there are no commas, use ‘that’. This, of course, presumes knowledge of comma use, which, come to think of it, it foolish in the extreme.

Posted by: Sue at February 28, 2004 08:37 AM

A few quick and ironically disjointed thoughts on some of your discussion of spoken vs. written language.

A professor of mine at the Kennedy School frequently bemoaned the majority of his students’ inability to communicate in writing with what he would consider to be sufficient proficiency. He felt, however, that his students had a greater facility with oral communication than his generation — especially when it comes to improvised / off-the-cuff oral communication (“B.S.”, as he was less charitably inclined to put it). The writing problem went beyond bad grammar or spelling to, more fundamentally, the inability to organize thoughts and cogent argumentation in writing (aptly demonstrated by this blog comment — natch!).

It seems to me that indeed this may be written and spoken language coming to resemble each other more closely (at least in the English with which I am the most familiar — I would presume that this trend would differ both within and across languages, of course, depending on a number of factors relating to the use of language in a particular geography, culture, functional context, etc.). Certainly he would have argued the point. The writing that our own and the younger generation is comfortable with is indeed not the writing of the “mailed letter” age — it is instead, or more so, perhaps, the writing of 30-second news bites, jot-note PowerPoint slides, grammar-less e-mails with nary a capital letter, one-line IMs, etc.

It seems to me that there is something both tangibly and intangibly different in the commitment of words “then and now”, or perhaps in the preponderance of “type” of communication then vs. now (e.g. casual vs. formal). I have not written a proper letter in years, but I remember it to be quite the serious undertaking. ;) In the meantime, I have written countless hundreds and thousands of e-mails. In my e-mails I can be very sloppy (less so in business correspondence, of course, but see the “context” factor above). Nowadays I find I can scarcely compose an intelligible postcard. It cannot simply be a matter of composing by bits and bytes rather than by ink, for I find my blog holds me to a higher standard than my (casual) e-mails, while others do blog as they speak. That said, there is, of course, something to digital editing and the progression (not progress) of written language. Even the longer pieces we and the younger generation compose can be edited on the fly and on a whim without regard for — gasp! — whiteout. And what of the fact that with blogging, for example, you can edit, post-publishing, not only your own entries but the comments of others? Where is the fortitude (and care, and anxiety, and …) of the commitment of words in writing when that writing can simply be changed — possibly, in fact very likely, often, without anyone noticing or having recorded the change of heart or mind?

What’s the meaning of all this? Well clearly I shouldn’t be writing blog comments at 1:15 a.m. AEST, that’s for sure. But that aside, I would agree that especially in certain contexts dominated by our more casual written communications (e.g. personal correspondence by e-mail, text messages, etc.), objects in the mirror — o.k., spoken language — are closer than they appear. My observations in a variety of settings (academic to business, etc.) would support the sorts of generational difference theories — with all their typical caveats and numerous exceptions, of course — advanced especially by “digital age” analysts of all stripes in the past few years.

The ultimate twist? Another professor of mine sent formal “memoranda” rather than typical e-mails. I eventually discovered that, being extremely busy and none-too-speedy with a keyboard, he would dictate his memoranda to a small tape recorder and have his assistant type them out. These memoranda would usually be delivered in hard copy and in person, but if required they would be e-mailed out as is: the body (!) of the e-mail included a MEMORANDUM header and “To:”, “From:”, and “Date:” fields.

And finally, a related question: what effect would a decreasing distance between spoken and written language have in the reverse direction? In other words, if the younger generation has a natural comfort with writing — but with writing of a more casual and perhaps less organized character — how does this in turn impact oral communication of the more formal sort? Related to what some pundits allege to be the death of (implied: brilliant) political oratory?

Posted by: Anatole at March 1, 2004 09:53 AM