"On the difference between writing and speaking"

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William Hazlitt, "Essay XIV. On the difference between Writing and Speaking" (c1825), tells us that

The most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I ever read.

And Hazlitt argues that the written transcript reveals the true emptiness of the speech:

The deception took place before; now it is removed. "Bottom! thou art translated!" might be placed as a motto under most collections of printed speeches that I have had the good fortune to meet with, whether originally addressed to the people, the senate, or the bar.

He explains further:

What we read is the same: what we hear and see is different—" the self-same words, but not to the self-same tune." The orator's vehemence of gesture, the loudness of the voice, the speaking eye, the conscious attitude, the inexplicable dumb show and noise,— all "those brave sublunary things that made his raptures clear," —are no longer there, and without these he is nothing;—his "fire and air" turn to puddle and ditch-water, and the God of eloquence and of our idolatry sinks into a common mortal, or an image of lead, with a few labels, nicknames, and party watchwords stuck in his mouth. The truth is, that these always made up the stock of his intellectual wealth; but a certain exaggeration and extravagance of manner covered the nakedness, and swelled out the emptiness of the matter: the sympathy of angry multitudes with an impassioned theatrical declaimer supplied the place of argument or wit; while the physical animation and ardor of the speaker evaporated in "sound and fury, signifying nothing," and leaving no trace behind it. A popular speaker (such as I have been here describing) is like a vulgar actor off the stage—take away his cue, and he has nothing to say for himself. Or he is so accustomed to the intoxication of popular applause, that without that stimulus he has no motive or power of exertion left—neither imagination, understanding, liveliness, common sense, words nor ideas—he is fairly cleared out; and in the intervals of sober reason, is the dullest and most imbecile of all mortals.

I wonder what particular orator he had in mind?

In speaking, he was like a volcano vomiting out lava; in writing, he is like a volcano burnt out. Nothing but the dry cinders, the hard shell remains. The tongues of flame, with which, in haranguing a mixed assembly, he used to illuminate his subject, and almost scorched up the panting air, do not appear painted on the margin of his works. He was the model of a flashy, powerful demagogue—a madman blest with a fit audience. He was possessed, infuriated with the patriotic mania; he seemed to rend and tear the rotten carcase of corruption with the remorseless, indecent rage of a wild beast: he mourned over the bleeding body of his country, like another Antony over the dead body of Caesar, as if he would "move the very stones of Rome to rise and mutiny :" he pointed to the " Persian abodes, the glittering temples" of oppression and luxury, with prophetic exultation; and, like another Helen, had almost fired another Troy! The lightning of national indignation flashed from his eye; the workings of the popular mind were seen laboring in his bosom: it writhed and swelled with its rank "fraught of aspics' tongues," and the poison frothed over at his lips. Thus qualified, he " wielded at will the fierce democracy, and fulmin'd over" an area of souls, of no mean circumference. He who might be said to have "roared you in the ears of the groundlings an 'twere any lion, aggravates his voice" on paper, " like any sucking-dove." It is not merely that the same individual cannot sit down quietly in his closet, and produce the same, or a correspondent effect—that what he delivers over to the compositor is tame, and trite, and tedious—that he cannot by any means, as it were, "create a soul under the ribs of death "—but sit down yourself, and read one of these very popular and electrical effusions (for they have been published) and you would not believe it to be the same! The thunder-and-lightning mixture of the orator turns out a mere drab-colored suit in the person of the prose-writer. We wonder at the change, and think there must be some mistake, some leger-de-main trick played off upon us, by which what before appeared so fine now appears to be so worthless.

Hazlitt may well have been right about the particular "dashing orator" he had in mind, but on the whole I disagree with him about the general emptiness of effective speaking. Or more exactly, I think that he has mixed up several things.

First, it's true that transcripts of spontaneous speech present "the self-same words, but not to the self-same tune" — but the "tune" (and the timing and the variation in voice quality and vocal effort, "all 'those brave sublunary things that made his raptures clear,'") are part of the presentation of the message, and sometimes part of the message itself. Good writers need to figure out how to communicate effectively despite the lack of those dimensions — Dwight Bolinger wrote about this in "Maneuvering for Stress and Intonation", College Composition and Communication 1957:

The first lesson that every apprentice writer must learn is what he can and what he cannot utilize out of the store of spoken devices that he has been accumulating since he learned to talk. Everyone knows that language comes out the narrow end of the funnel when it passes from speech to writing. Something is gained, no doubt, in pictographic tricks and in the precision that is made possible by our freedom to revise what we have said before anyone sets eye or ear upon it. But more is lost. All the expressiveness that we associate with a living speaker is wrung out: gesture, the look on a face, a quality of voice, the warmth of physical presence.

See "The narrow end of the funnel" (8/18/2016) for more discussion of how the "'fire and air' [may] turn to puddle and ditch-water". But the fact that so much "expressiveness" has been lost doesn't mean that it was never there, or that the expressiveness necessarily masked a lack of substance.

And second, most spontaneous speech is full of parentheticals, self-corrections, filled and unfilled pauses, and other "disfluencies". As noted e.g. in "Trump's eloquence" (8/5/2015), such things are effectively signaled in performance and therefore filtered out by listeners. And in fact there is a distinguished tradition arguing that these aspects of spontaneous speech should be treated as first-class linguistic citizens, which are not only grammatically lawful but also often contribute to the process of communication — a recent example is Jonathan Ginzburg and Massimo Poesio, "Grammar Is a System That Characterizes Talk in Interaction", Frontiers in Psychology 12/22/2016:

Much of contemporary mainstream formal grammar theory is unable to provide analyses for language as it occurs in actual spoken interaction. Its analyses are developed for a cleaned up version of language which omits the disfluencies, non-sentential utterances, gestures, and many other phenomena that are ubiquitous in spoken language. Using evidence from linguistics, conversation analysis, multimodal communication, psychology, language acquisition, and neuroscience, we show these aspects of language use are rule governed in much the same way as phenomena captured by conventional grammars. Furthermore, we argue that over the past few years some of the tools required to provide a precise characterizations of such phenomena have begun to emerge in theoretical and computational linguistics; hence, there is no reason for treating them as “second class citizens” other than pre-theoretical assumptions about what should fall under the purview of grammar. Finally, we suggest that grammar formalisms covering such phenomena would provide a better foundation not just for linguistic analysis of face-to-face interaction, but also for sister disciplines, such as research on spoken dialogue systems and/or psychological work on language acquisition.

So for both of those reasons, transcripts of spontaneous speech are indeed often "flat" and even apparently incoherent. But for similar reasons, written prose read out loud can often sound tedious and inauthentic.

In terms of the quality of the ideas involved, material in either medium can be good or bad. And likewise the quality of the presentation varies, though effective speaking and effective writing call for different techniques.

All the same, Hazlitt's essay is fun — if you can get past the thousand-word paragraphs …  (Of course we should underline, as Hazlitt does, that there are many kinds of speaking and many kinds of writing.)



  1. Dick Margulis said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 11:17 am

    Effective speaking would seem to require a fair amount of redundancy to overcome the problems of fluctuating attention on the part of the listener and noisiness of the channel in general. That redundancy is something writers and editors are trained to avoid. When we admonish a student to "write as you speak" in order to get them to adopt a more informal register, we don't literally mean to transcribe what you would say. I had a coworker once who was a dynamic speaker. She could hold a conference room's attention for a presentation of what was frankly pretty tedious and technical material. But when she wrote—having literally interpreted the write as you speak dictum she had been taught—all the rhetorical tricks she used when speaking came across as wordy, boring, and repetitive. Once I drew her attention to the problem, her writing improved dramatically.

  2. "On the difference between writing and speaking" • Zhi Chinese said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    […] Source: Language "On the difference between writing and speaking" […]

  3. Michael said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 1:13 pm

    It's interesting to contrast this with the arguments Plato puts forward in Phaedrus against writing and in favor of oral communication as the superior form of writing. I know these have been mentioned elsewhere on LL. People often point out that writing was new to the ancient Greeks, and that intellectuals were therefore distrustful of it. By the nineteenth century, it was so well-established as to have become the new norm, the better way to analyze and understand language. The twentieth century would re-introduce oratory (through electronic communication) as a mass communication device, and arguably turn the situation on its head once again. Today we have (written) tweets and (oral) youtube videos and webcams living side-by-side, and there are people who trust none of it, arguing for a purity that older media provided. All of which is to say that people are comfortable with what they are most familiar with, and uncomfortable with the unknown.

    [(myl) Word. I wonder whether Hazlitt noticed that he was contradicting Plato, or perhaps even took pleasure in doing so.]

  4. TR said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 1:23 pm

    Like another Helen, had almost fired another Troy — I wonder if this begat Yeats's "Was there another Troy for her to burn?" Or was this a more widespread trope?

  5. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    This is similar, I think, to the recent discussion here of the distinction between song lyrics and poetry. In both cases, the beauty and eloquence we hear in performance can turn to puddle and ditch-water on the page. What's odd to me is Hazlitt's assumption that the true speech is what's on the page, and what you hear is only a deception. That seems backwards, especially for a Romantic–he's murdering to dissect, as Wordsworth said.

  6. Paul Mulshine said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 1:54 pm

    As a journalist who has attended many a Donald trump speech I would say that Dick Margulis certainly has it right as regards repetition. Trump regularly will end a sentence and then reprise the last half of that sentence in a lowered tone – often in quite an amusing manner. He has clearly copied the delivery of the Borscht Belt comedians and can be really funny in person. I suspect his words would not come across on the printed page.

  7. Cervantes said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 2:24 pm


    Like another Helen, had almost fired another Troy — I wonder if this begat Yeats's "Was there another Troy for her to burn?" Or was this a more widespread trope?


    Hazlitt is alluding to a 17th-century ode by Dryden: "Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music."

  8. Jonathan Smith said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 4:42 pm

    So presenters at academic conferences, please quit just reading your papers aloud. Or if you don't wish to actually do a presentation, just pass the paper around, we'll read it, then Q/A.

  9. Lazar said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

    The most dashing orator I ever heard is the flattest writer I ever read.

    Tangential, but I've noticed this construction – where the perfect would seem more natural to me – in a lot of writing from the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Gelett Burgess's "I never saw a purple cow": why not "I've never seen a purple cow"? It goes against my naive sense that the simple past has expanded at the expense of the perfect.

  10. David Marjanović said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 6:10 pm

    So presenters at academic conferences, please quit just reading your papers aloud.

    I was very astonished to see YouTube videos of a historical-linguistics conference that took place last year, where half of the presenters read their notes aloud with no further means of presentation. In my field, it's all PowerPoint all the way (with the occasional Keynote or PDF); 10 years ago some conferences added "if you need an archeological item like an overhead projector, tell us so we can organize one", but the idea of reading written notes aloud doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone in decades.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    Trump regularly will end a sentence and then reprise the last half of that sentence in a lowered tone – often in quite an amusing manner.

    He never did that! Never did that! Never did that, folks! Look it up! Never did that!

  12. Mr Punch said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 6:36 pm

    Hazlitt seems to be trying to make consistent what are properly two separate critical standards. We do not want to hear conference papers read out – but we nod when a review notes that a monograph "betrays its origin in a lecture series."

  13. Mark said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 10:41 pm

    This reminds me of my high school English teacher telling my class about a previous student who seemed to have trouble writing his essays. The teacher expected more from the student and had trouble figuring out exactly why his essays didn't work. And then, he told us, he had the student read the essay aloud and realized that the student's writing was essentially a transcript of a spoken presentation. As a spoken presentation, he said, it was really good.

  14. D.O. said,

    December 23, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    Hazlitt is writing about public lectures by John Thelwall (hat tip Mark Philip Reforming ideas in Britain)

  15. Brett said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 7:42 am

    @David Marjanović: As somebody who attends talks in physics, chemistry, biology, geography, philosophy, and linguistics, I can attest that the standards for oral presentations in the sciences are much higher than in many humanities fields.

  16. Bob Ladd said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    I'm surprised nobody has yet mentioned the existence of the opposite kind of communicator – one who is more effective in writing than in speaking. I've always felt that I'm one of those, and there are certainly others (possibly Dwight Bolinger himself would qualify – the essay of his that MYL quotes from is partly a digest of some of the tricks that Bolinger had learned how to make use of). I'm not sure what's involved in this difference, but I think it must likewise involve REMOVING various oral/aural and visual linguistic and paralinguistic cues that are present in the live speech signal. In the case of Hazlitt's orator, you take out signals of confident and convincing speech and the result sounds flat; in the reverse case, you take out cues that make the speaker seem boring or unconfident and the underlying message comes across more effectively.

  17. TR said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

    Presumably Hazlitt himself was of this second class (otherwise we would have heard of his genius as an orator).

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