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Really Good Word Usage -- No. 23 Writing Isn't Talking Unless You're Writing Talking

By Author: Paul Patterson
Total Articles: 31

You'd probably never write a sentence like this unless it was a direct quotation: "Well, I mean, you know, we just kind of, you know, kicked it around some until Mel goes he won't, like, support the campaign." People speak like that. It's called speaking "colloquially," which, technically, means as in informal spoken language or conversation. If that's how we speak and the people we deal with understand us, there's no problem. When non-standard English is spoken, someone may notice, but it's gone as soon as it's said. It may stay in someone's memory for a while, but it usually fades quickly. When it's written, though, it may not go away for a long time. It's right there on a piece of paper or on screen.
This is especially important if our job or even intention is to convey ideas and information clearly in writing. Then it's necessary to recognize the distinction between what's writing and what's talking. Pick up any document from a scholarly paper to a company newsletter, and it's clear that some of the old, strict rules of usage that many of us learned aren't much observed except in the most formal writing. (The style of this article is a good example of that.) To a great extent, that's the result of the current practice to make almost all writing more conversational. But, conversational, in this context, doesn't mean exactly the same as colloquial. Being conversational in writing doesn't mean that we can toss all the rules out and still be considered good writers.
In business, government, and education, there are still some clear guidelines we, as serious writers, are expected to follow. Unfortunately, too often, the difference between casual conversation and serious prose gets confused. Documents are commonly sprinkled with slangy terms such as bottom line, below the radar, synergy, and win-win. And, whether we use a preposition to end a sentence with is a matter of style or how "correct" we want to be. But, if we use bad grammar and poor syntax, we leave permanent proof that we may lack the skills needed to be a serious writers.
If someone knocks, and we ask who it is, the reply, "It's me," is perfectly acceptable. In fact, we'd probably wonder about someone who said, "It's I." That's not how we speak colloquially. On the other hand, our writing skills would be questioned if we wrote "June presented the idea, and it was her who explained it." In speaking, pronouns get messed with a lot. In writing, unless we're writing speaking, there are still rules. Good writers follow them--or at least know when they're breaking them. In a report on a meeting, "And then Fred goes that he's not too sure about the total cost," may sound OK, but it doesn't read well. And, the perennial "But you knew what I meant" isn't a valid excuse. In a serious correspondence, just getting the meaning across isn't the whole point. Some rules for expressing ideas are preferred if for no other reason than it makes it look as though we're serious about what we're writing.

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