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  • Ben Fraser

A Pedant’s Guide to the English Language – Part Four: Distinguishing Written English

As they begin to write, primary school children are taught phonics. Phonics is the relating of the spoken to the written word: sounds are related to letters and groups of letters, which helps the children to attempt to spell words, based on how they would say them.


Thus, there is a paradox to be observed here. Written and spoken modes are inextricably intertwined and learning of written language continues to be rooted in oral pronunciation. At the same time, we are encouraged to distinguish between writing and speech, for which the regarding of certain language as slang or colloquial is evidence.


And yet, as the linguist, Norman Fairclough, recognises, spoken language is on the rise, a development he terms conversationalism. He spotted this shift in the 1990s and, bearing in mind the cool kids then were playing Nintendo 64 and sporting Tamagotchis, it’s reasonable to suggest that the precedence of speech over writing has only been consolidated since that time, thanks, in no small part, to the increasing ascendency of the World Wide Web.


This blurring of the boundary between writing and talking seems to offer us a ready-made excuse for our often lackadaisical writing. Unlike perhaps any previous generation, we are exposed to a written English which is about as regulated as President Trump’s tax returns: indeed, whilst the latter’s tweets have now been flagged to be “fact-checked”, they are certainly not spell-checked (“covfefe”, anyone?), nor conform to expectations of a world leader’s written correspondence.


Ultimately, your written style should be adapted to your audience and purpose; I can lean into the conversational more freely in these blogs, for instance, than you might in your academic dissertation. Clearly, Mr Trump adapts his language to his mode and audience: the narrow scope of a tweet and the “average” American respectively (1). The key is to be aware, wary even, of the impact that speech can have on your writing. In this way, you can manipulate your register to the occasion at hand.


An English Problem


The relationship between the spoken and the written is particularly fraught in the English language. The term “ghoti” has been coined to demonstrate the inconsistency between spelling (orthography) and pronunciation (phonology). Through analogy, it’s shown that the invented “ghoti” could be pronounced like the existing English word, “fish”:


gh can be f (IPA: /f/), as in enough o can be i (IPA: /ɪ/), as in women ti can be sh (IPA: /ʃ/), as in nation

ergo, “ghoti” becomes “fish”.


Although somewhat sensationalist, this is not only a memorable indicator of how difficult English spelling and pronunciation can be. By extension, we also see how there is a distinct difference between knowing how to speak English and knowing how to write it.


Homonyms, homophones, and homographs are further instances of the difficulty of phonology and orthography in English.


In the narrowest sense, a homonym sounds and is spelt like another word: lie is a homonym, for it can mean, “to tell an untruth” just as it can, “to assume a recumbent position” (2).

A homograph is spelt the same but has a different meaning: following up on a lead, we determine that Colonel Mustard was killed with the lead pipe. As in this case, homographs often sound dissimilar to one another as well.


Finally, homophones sound the same but mean something different: examples are which and witch or their, there, and they’re. The converse of homographs, we see that homophones are commonly spelt differently.


You might be wondering what the relevance of these examples is. After all, the modern-day word processor is equipped with an automatic spell-checking tool, which can spare you the mental exertion. But even if a word is spelt correctly, that’s not to say it is being used appropriately. Word pairings such as compliment and complement or effect and affect, which are often confused, can not necessarily be unjumbled at the click of a button, so we must think twice about handing over our written autonomy to the AI (3).


There are many such traps, into which native and foreign speakers alike regularly and unwittingly tumble. We write “would of” instead of “would have” or “in regards to” and not “in regard to”. Such forms can only be attributed to spoken familiarity; after all, you will not find them anywhere written down, that’s to say, you wouldn’t have, prior to the multi-modal written platform that is the modern internet.


Often, the particular regional variant of English you are accustomed to speaking can impact your written English; Wearside-based pupils, for example, have been known to spell “register” as “redchester”, a phonetic spelling of the kind taught to them in school, a system of which “ghoti” has already highlighted the limitations.


Fittingly, this brings us full circle, back to the conditions of those learning their written craft. A lot is made in the media of the fact that young people today spend most of their time online, rather than partaking in physical activities outdoors. There is a parallel here to written development, for the written English they grow up reading differs dramatically from that previous generations found within books. Internet English, as we know, can reinforce the existing instinct to incorporate spoken elements into our writing.


It’s likely that the deformalisation process Fairclough identifies will continue. Conversational features will become more embedded in writing of all descriptions. In the meantime, understanding the close but fraught relationship between writing and speech will help you to avoid what might still be regarded by some as bad habits in writing (4)


.*If you struggle with this topic and others like it, get in touch with Short Proofing: we are here to help!


1) You note the inverted commas here.

2) Occasionally, homonym is used to refer to either a homograph or a homophone; yet, since I am about to explain both of these terms individually, we you will be able to spot them without having to hedge them under an umbrella term.

3) On the issue of i or e in compliment/complement: Mark complimented my dress, which he said complements my shoes nicely - the fact that “complement” is underlined by a blue squiggle as I write only supports my statement.

4) “Bad habits”: I’m thinking not only of the informality of what is written online; the dominance of the American variety of English is an example of another factor at play. To get my thoughts on this issue, please consult the second blog in this series.


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