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Cristina Pennarola » 4.Writing vs. speaking

Writing vs. speaking

Lesson Plan

  • An overview of writing
  • An overview of speech
  • Features of writing
  • Features of speech
  • Sentence vs. utterance
  • The grammar of speech
  • The language of introductions
  • Focus on Bridget Jones’s introductions
  • Round-up

An overview of writing

Writing is:

  • Permanent: we can keep a record of all that is written thanks to technology (stone, paper, computer etc.)
  • Deferred: we usually write to contact distant people, so we have to allow a certain lapse of time for our message to reach its target
  • Structured: any piece of writing is organized into sentences, paragraphs and sections
  • Planned: when we write we take time to focus on the things we want to say and how we want to say them. We don’t usually improvise
  • Formal: the language used in permanent documents tends to be more accurate and formal than in speech
  • Prestigious: writing is largely used to keep a record of important documents; furthermore, unlike speech, it is part of the educational curriculum

An overview of speech

Speech is:

  • Transient: unless we use a tape-recorder or some other technology, we don’t keep a record of our spoken interactions
  • Ongoing: spoken exchanges are usually face to face and take place in real time
  • Unplanned: most of our speaking is spontaneous – we do not know what conversations we will be having throughout the day; moreover, speakers, unlike writers, have no time to carefully think about the form of their message (for example, which words are more appropriate or correct)
  • Fragmentary: because speech is unplanned, it is also largely unstructured; there may be many repetitions and inaccuracies

Features of writing

Spelling: the form of words; for example colour (British spelling) vs. color (American spelling).
Punctuation: commas, full-stops, question marks etc. which serve as intonational cues.
Capitalization: capital letter after the full-stop to start a new sentence.
Paragraphing: paragraphs and indentation, that is a space at the beginning of a line of writing.
Cohesive devices: use of pronouns, synonyms, etc. to make a text a cohesive unit.

The belief that standards of English are falling is peculiar, although it has a long history. It is peculiar in that it presupposes that there is some universal set of criteria against which the standard can be judged. Usually these criteria are found in the past and they are frequently associated with particular literary writers.

(T. Bex, 1996, Variety in Written English, p.8)

Features of speech

Voice: the sounds when you speak – somebody’s tone of voice shows how they feel.
Accent: the way people pronounce the words of a language, showing which country or which part of a country they come from.
Pace: the speed at which somebody is speaking (for example, rapid or slow pace).
Intonation: the way in which the level of somebody’s voice changes in order to convey an additional meaning (for example, surprise or doubt).
Rhythm: a regular pattern of sounds. Unlike Italian, the rhythm of English is not based on the syllable but on word and sentence stress.


That is the end of the news.

Only some words are made prominent, while others with a weak stress (usually determiners and modals) remain in the background.

THAT is the END of the NEWS.

(T. McArthur 1998, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 580-581)

Sentence vs. Utterance

A sentence is

  • a grammatical construct starting with a capital letter and ending with a full-stop
  • it is the basic building block of writing

Example: Although he was happy to be there with his friends, he found it difficult to talk with them.

An utterance is

  • a stretch of orally produced language which does not necessarily comply with grammar conventions (for example, punctuation)
  • it is the basic building block of speech

Example: Good to be here with you so how’s it going?

Though we are strongly influenced by writing conventions, it is worth remembering that our utterances (in any of the languages we speak) are very different from sentences – they are often ungrammatical and fragmentary.

The grammar of speech

Until recently, items and structures most typically found in spoken communication have not been fully described. Most grammars of English have had a bias towards the written language. It is only recently that advances in audio-recording and associated technology have made it possible for sufficient quantities of spoken language to be used for analysis.

(R. Carter, M. McCarthy, 2006, Cambridge Grammar of English, p. 9)

Written and spoken language differ in many respects:

  • Textual structure
  • Degree of formality and acceptability
  • Paralinguistic features: for example graphology and layout in writing, intonational patterns and voice pitch in speech

The grammar rules applying to speech are much more flexible than those followed in writing. Until a short time ago, because of the low prestige associated with speech, English grammar was exclusively based on written texts. This view is currently being challenged, as linguists have started to devote their attention to spoken exchanges.

The language of introductions

Introductions: the act of formally telling two people each other’s names when they first meet.

HELLO, I’M _________ HELLO , MY NAME’S _________
“Dad, this is Kevin.” “Hello, Kevin. Andrea’s told me a lot about you.”
Hello, I’m Alan Simmons. I work in the production team.

PLEASED/GOOD/ NICE TO MEET YOU you say this when you meet someone for the first time and have just been told their name.
Richard, this is my brother Ronnie.” “Nice to meet you, Ronnie.
Mrs. Parrish, it’s good to meet you after hearing Lynn talk so much about you.
My name is Lena Curtis.” “Pleased to meet you, I’m David Bennet.

HOW DO YOU DO (formal) you say this when you are meeting someone for the first time, especially when you have just been told their name.
How do you do, sir. My name is Greg Dunbar.
Sue, this is Mr. Vance.” “Oh, how do you do.

(see the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English on CD-ROM, 2005)

Focus on Bridget’s introductions

ACTIVITY: Watch the introductions scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary, read the transcript and answer the following questions.

  • What is the relationship between the people in this scene?
  • Do they seem to like each other?
  • What is the usual response to “how are you”?
  • Why do you think Bridget mentions the reindeer jumper?
  • How relevant are the “thoughtful details” provided by Bridget?
  • Compare Bridget’s fictive introduction to the real one. In what way do they differ?
  • What about Mark Darcy’s introductions? Is there anything unusual about them?
  • What are the language markers of spoken interaction?
  • Draw two columns, one for polite expressions and one for rude language.
  • Can we consider it an example of an ironical exchange? Why?

Transcript of Bridget’s introductions

BRIDGET: Stay calm. Can’t get any worse. What are you doing here?
MARK: I’ve been asking myself the same question. I came with a colleague. So how are you?
BRIDGET: Well, apart from being very disappointed not to see my favourite reindeer jumper again, I’m well.
PERPETUA: Anyone going to introduce me?
BRIDGET: Ah, introduce people with thoughtful details.
Perpetua. This is Mark Darcy. Mark’s a prematurely middle-aged prick with a cruel-race ex-wife. Perpetua’s a fat-ass old bag who spends her time bossing me around. Maybe not.
PERPETUA: Anyone going to introduce me?
BRIDGET: Ah, Perpetua. Uh, this is Mark Darcy. Mark’s a top barrister. Oh, he comes from Grafton Underwood. Perpetua is one of my work colleagues.
PERPETUA: Hi Mark, I know you by reputation, of course.
MARK: Ah, Natasha. This is Bridget Jones. Bridget, this is Natasha. Natasha is a top attorney and specializes in family law. Bridget works in publishing and used to play naked in my paddling pool.
NATASHA: How odd. Perpetua, how’s the house-hunt going?
PERPETUA: Disaster. I can’t even go into it with you. By the by, that man is gorgeous.
NATASHA: Ah, yes, Mark. Just give me time. Give me time.

Round-up of introductions

Introductions present a highly conventional language (This is Mark; pleased to meet you; allow me to introduce; etc.) Because they are meant to facilitate interaction and socialization, they can often include “thoughtful details” (Mark is a top barrister; Perpetua is my work colleague) which could be used as a conversation starter. The language used in introductions is polite: Nice to meet you.

By contrast, the introductions that Bridget is fantasising about are extremely rude and subvert this genre conventions (Mark’s a prematurely middle-aged prick; Perpetua’s a fat-ass old bag) in line with her nonconformist character. Bridget is also teasing Mark Darcy about the funny jumper with a Christmas reindeer he was wearing when they met at her parent’s New Year party.

Mark Darcy’s introduction is also very odd with his rather embarassing reference to Bridget playing naked in his paddling pool.

Introductions are for:

  • Socializing
  • Praising
  • Criticising
  • Being witty & ironic

I materiali di supporto della lezione


Bridget Jones's Diary, 2001, Universal Pictures.

T. Bex, 1996, Variety in Written English. Texts in Society: Societies in Text. London, Routledge.

R. Carter, S. Cornbleet, 2001, The Language of Speech and Writing, London, Routledge.

R. Carter, M. McCarthy, 2006, Cambridge Grammar of English. A Comprehensive Guide. Spoken and Written English Grammar and Usage, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English on CD-ROM, 2005.

T. McArthur 1998, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

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Progetto "Campus Virtuale" dell'Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, realizzato con il cofinanziamento dell'Unione europea. Asse V - Società dell'informazione - Obiettivo Operativo 5.1 e-Government ed e-Inclusion

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