Introduction: Reading and writing; talking and thinking

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1 Introduction: Reading and writing; talking and thinking We begin, not with reading, writing or reasoning, but with talk, which is a more complicated business than most people realize. Of course, being unaware of the full complexity of talk will not stop you communicating effectively in writing. However, it means that you will not be able to take account of the differences between communicating in speech and doing so in writing. As a result you may be less good at conveying your meanings in writing than you might be otherwise. Indeed, some of the most common problems that students have in writing arise because they have failed to think about these distinctions. Task 1: How is writing different from talking? Take a moment or two to write down the differences that you think exist between communicating through speech and communicating in writing. What advantages, if any, does talk have over writing? Does writing have any advantages over talk? If so, what are they? Thinking about talk Consider for a moment what goes into a conversational exchange between two or more people. Naturally, there are the words spoken, but the how, when and

2 2 INTRODUCTION where of their being spoken is just as important in communicating meaning as the mere words the speakers use. In other words, there is more to talk than talk. When we speak our tone of voice, facial expression and body language convey attitude and emotion, whether we intend them to do so or not. Conversations take place in a particular context and a certain amount of background knowledge, common to speaker and listener, can often be taken for granted. For example, recalling an incident in the café in which she and Jill are having lunch, Mary might say, You remember the time when, leaving the rest of the sentence unsaid, but employing a grimace or a wry smile to evoke an occasion, many years before, when they realized that neither of them had enough money to pay for their coffee. In such situations, a nod and a smile from the listener is enough to show the other person that she understands, because she remembers this aspect of their shared history. What is left unsaid is often as important as what is said. For example, although the remark Jimmy isn t drunk today could be a simple factual statement about Jimmy, if it was uttered with a knowing look and in a certain tone of voice (perhaps with a stress on the second syllable of today ) it could be used to imply that he is drunk every other day. Simply changing the way you say something is often enough to alter the meaning conveyed. Consider, for instance, the different meanings that would be conveyed depending on whether the first or the second word in this sentence was stressed: You were going to do it 1. You can even communicate the opposite of the meaning that the words you are using would have if taken at face value. For example, someone who says, That s very kind of you in the appropriate circumstances and with a shocked look, a bitter tone of voice and a stress on the first syllable of very, may well mean, That s very unkind of you. Most native users of English are aware of linguistic subtleties of this kind, because skill in interpreting nuances of meaning in spoken communication is something that we learn as we grow up. So talk takes place in a certain context. There is a speaker, a listener, and the social and physical situation that they are currently in. One of the most important features of face-to-face talk is that there is the possibility of immediate interaction between speaker and listener. Among other things, this means that if we don t understand what a person is saying, we have the opportunity to clarify what they meant, for example, by asking them to explain something we didn t understand, or to fill in missing information. Another important aspect of face-to-face talk, as we saw in the story about Mary and Jill, is the possibility of conveying meaning through body language, including both facial expression and bodily gestures. Things are different when we can t 1 The it referred to in this sentence could be almost anything: collect the cat ; pay the telephone bill before we are cut off ; make the bid on the house ; buy food for tea, or book the holiday while the offer is still on.

3 INTRODUCTION 3 see the person with whom we are speaking especially, for example, when we are talking over the phone. Task 2: How is talking face-to-face different from talking on the phone? Take a moment or two to write down the differences that you think exist between talking face-to-face and talking on the phone. Face-to-face-talk and telephonic talk When we were writing the first edition of this book in the late 1980s, we drew attention to some of the differences between face-to-face and telephonic talk. For example, we pointed out that when we are talking over the phone voices may sound unnatural; people may feel uneasy and pressed for time, and the possibility of referring to objects physically by a gesture or a demonstrative such as this cup or that book is unavailable. In particular, we noted that whereas body language, including facial expression, typically makes a strong contribution to the communication of meaning when we are speaking face-to-face, this was impossible when talking over the telephone; and, indeed, in most circumstances it still is impossible. So, for example, we pointed out that although we might think we detect doubt, insincerity or anger in a person s voice when we are talking to her over the phone, we could not read it in her face, as we might were she in the same place as us. As we write this in early 2011, it is still true that other than the words she is using, tone of voice is usually the only thing that will allow us to guess at the mood of a person to whom we are speaking on the phone. This is in spite of the fact that more and more people are now using mobile phones that have the possibility of good quality video connection and that video calling on the Internet is an everyday event for many people. The absence of visual clues in much telephonic talk has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the fact that the person to whom you are speaking cannot pick up clues from your body language, facial expression and gestures makes it easier to conceal your true feelings from her during telephone conversations. This is clearly useful at times. Consider, for example, how much easier it is to tell a lie or to turn down an unwanted invitation over the telephone, than to do so face-to-face. Or imagine a situation in which you are trying to convince someone about something that you know to be untrue, using lines like these: I m going to be a bit late. It s dreadful; the queue stretches for miles; I think there must have been an accident. I ve been in the library all day working on my essay, but I ll be home as soon as I can.

4 4 INTRODUCTION I m going to miss my tutorial today, because I ve been really unwell all weekend and I still don t feel right. Can you please tell Professor Winch I m going to be late with my essay, because: my gran died last week/i ve had bubonic plague for a fortnight/i lost all my data when my laptop was hit by lightning. Many people (perhaps most) will, on occasion, have said things like these over the telephone to others from whom they wanted to conceal the truth (or at least the whole truth) for whatever reason. In such circumstances, the relative poverty of telephonic talk, and in particular the absence of visual clues, is a considerable advantage. However, the tables are turned when we are on the receiving end, when this feature of telephone talk becomes a disadvantage. Most people will have been duped by another who wished, for whatever reason, to deceive them during a telephone conversation. That is why, if it is possible to do so, it is best always to communicate about important matters in a face-to-face setting, when it is easier to assess whether a person is being truthful or not. This can be really useful at times. For example, if you could see his uneasy facial expression you might have less confidence in the car mechanic who tells you in a breezily confident tone that first thing tomorrow he will be able to get the new phalanges he needs to get your car back on the road by tomorrow afternoon. How are talking and writing different? Talking face-to-face and writing are different, because like telephone talk, written communication is impoverished by the absence of visual cues. When we are reading we can see neither the face nor the body language of the person who wrote the text; nor can we gain information from his tone of voice. The possibility of immediate clarification, which exists both in telephone talk and in face-to-face talk, is also absent from most forms of written communication. Two exceptions to this would be the conversations that are possible via text messaging and , though both have built-in delays as the people involved take turns in writing; and of course in each case there is also the possibility of editing. Written communications that are even closer to genuine spoken conversations include the hybrid forms that sit between talk and writing, using Internet services, such as Windows Live Messenger and Facebook Chat. Our familiarity with speech, the fact that we feel so much at ease with the spoken word and the fact that it comes naturally to us, make it difficult for many people to adjust to the different requirements of writing, and especially to the more formal writing that is found in academic contexts. Because the clues that are supplied by context in spoken communication are not available

5 INTRODUCTION 5 to her readers, the writer has to make do without them and communicate effectively nonetheless. This involves substituting (if possible) for tone of voice, the physical presence of the listener and the possibility of interaction. For example, since you cannot look or sound firm in a letter, you have to convey firmness by choosing your words carefully, for example, by writing I am absolutely determined that And since your reader can t see what you can see and has no opportunity to ask for further explanation, clarity is much more important in the written word than it is in speaking. In other words, not only will you often have to give more complete descriptions of places, objects and people in writing than would be necessary if you were communicating the same ideas face-to-face, but striking the right balance between what to leave out and what to put in can be crucially important. All of this means that writing takes a great deal of care, both in ensuring that what and how you write is suitable for your audience, and in ensuring that you give enough information to meet their needs. The points we have drawn attention to so far may strike you as rather elementary aspects of the difference between making oneself understood in face-to-face speech and in writing, but they are often overlooked, particularly by people who do not write very often, or who are uneasy about writing. Even accomplished writers, who are well aware of the kind of pitfalls we have been discussing, may ignore them when the subject matter about which they are writing is very familiar. In such circumstances, particular problems arise when a writer misguidedly assumes that her readers are at least as knowledgeable as she is about her subject matter. A writer may refer to a book, an argument, an individual or even a topic, wrongly assuming that her readers will know about it. For example, she might refer casually to Zukowski s well-known recent monograph on the sexual habits of Outer Mongolian Lepidoptera, when in fact the reader has never heard of Zukowski or Outer Mongolian Lepidoptera, far less have any interest in their sexual habits. Unfortunately, there is no immediate way in which the reader can correct this impression. He has to make do with what is on the page in front of him. Task 3: Communicating directions to your new address As a way of further exploring the distinctions between communication faceto-face, over the phone and in writing that we have raised in this brief introduction, spend a moment or two thinking about how you would communicate the same information in different ways. Imagine, for example, that you want to tell a friend how to get to your new address. What difference would there be between doing so face-to-face, on the phone, or in writing?

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