Thursday, October 4, 2012

Speaking v. Writing

This week I attended a series of oral arguments before a panel of Fifth Circuit judges. Listening to lawyers argue cases about which I knew nothing was extremely interesting—although often boring beyond words. The exercise was extremely interesting as it illuminated both critical distinctions and commonalities between speech and writing.
I suspect you will agree that both speech and writing are supposed to enable communication. And when seeking to communicating about the law, speakers and writers can both benefit from some basic precepts:
  • Have a theme.
  • Avoid jargon-laden shorthand.
  • Emphasize concrete facts to make both legal rules and legal disputes accessible.
  • Tell your audience your conclusion in advance and then use roadmaps and other techniques to help that audience stay focused as you walk through the building blocks that substantiate your position.
  • Use analogies to show rather than assert.
When speaking, you can be a little more elliptical, informal, digressive than when you write. You can also rely to some degree on gestures and facial expressions to fill in gaps. At the same time, speakers have to worry in the moment about things like pace, volume, and inflection in ways that writers do not. Additionally, when speaking about the law, you have to break things down into even more manageable chunks than legal writers do or risk losing the audience—who cannot flip back to the page where their eyes started to glaze over and give your argument another shot.
How can Shakespeare help illuminate this phenomenon? Well, think about the ways that listening to people speaking Shakespearean text and reading that same text are different. One task is not necessarily easier than the other; nor are the experiences challenging in the same way. When hearing characters perform Shakespearean text you are getting lots of extra-textual clues to assist with comprehension—intonation, facial expressions, body language. At the same time, because the text is spoken and is, therefore, fleeting, you cannot mull over the text’s meaning in real time without being pulled out of the world of the play entirely. A kindly stranger commenting on this blog sent a link to an article published a few years ago that discusses this particular challenge. The article, “The Real Shakespearean Tragedy" by John McWhorter, is available at (thanks to the Theater Communications Group, the same organization responsible for the terrific half-price ticket booth located near Times Square). The article asks us “to shed our fear of language change and give Shakespeare his due” by presenting the Bard’s work in accessible, well-crafted translation, translations that would account for some of the issues I described in a previous post. See “Translation, Please.” And Kent Richmond, who provided me with this helpful heads up, appears to be devoting time to this important translation enterprise. See
The fact is: Speaking any text that was written to be read, not spoken, imposes undue burdens on the audience; likewise, reading text that was drafted to be spoken presents special changes—even when the text is not in elevated Elizabethan English. Consider, for instance, this contemporary exchange:
A: I was like—(gesture)
B: Whoa.
A: For real.
B: Shut up.
If the reader does not take the time while reading to imagine what this dialogue should sound like, these very easy words seem incomprehensible. Here is a more literary example of the same challenge:
what time is it
I don’t know
she rose to her feet I fumbled along the ground
Im going let it go
to the house
I could feel her standing there I could smell her damp clothes feeling her there
its right here somewhere
let it go you can find it tomorrow come on
wait a minute Ill find it are you afraid to
here it is it was right here all the time
was it come on

Yep. That is exactly the way this passage from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is printed. To make any sense out of this passage, the reader first has to read it recognizing that it is primarily a dialogue. Let me help you out with some light editing
 “What time is it?”
“I don’t know.”
She rose to her feet. I fumbled along the ground.
“I’m going—”
“Let it go.”
“—to the house.”
I could feel her standing there; I could smell her damp clothes, feeling her there.
“It’s right here somewhere.”
“Let it go. You can find it tomorrow. Come on.”
“Wait a minute. I’ll find it—”
“Are you afraid to—”
“Here it is. It was right here all the time.”
“Was it? Come on.”

All I did was add some capitalization and punctuation. Suddenly, the recorded speech is easier to read. To be blunt: Faulkner was being far meaner than Shakespeare here. As far as we know, Shakespeare never intended for readers to grapple with his text, which was composed for actors to speak. He never pursued publication. So he had no reason to worry about this text-to-be-spoken v. written issue and how the distinctions between the two might affect readability. By contrast, Faulkner could easily have cut his readers some slack without any great sacrifice of artistry but merely some tiny adjustments in typeface and punctuation. Then again, the passage above comes from the mind of a troubled Southerner studying at Harvard who has decided to end a lovely spring day by drowning himself in the Charles River because he can’t get over an obsession with a sister who has proven to be imperfect. So the muddle Faulkner created by depriving the reader of visual aids about the speech rattling around in this guy’s head is part of the point.
In any case, my point is that speaking and writing are both hard. And if you approach one task just as you would the other, all hell can break lose. Or at least you can fail to achieve the fundamental goal of communicating with someone outside of your own head, which is generally why most people bother to speak or to write.
Plato made a big deal of the difference between speech and writing—arguing that speech is inherently more trustworthy. Which is really hilarious considering that he made his case for the preeminence of speech in writing. Today I won’t get into why I think this is bunk and why Plato’s false and certainly unfair dichotomy in privileging one form of human communication over another reflects a prejudice that has haunted Western Civilization for millennia. The important point of the moment is that speaking and writing—especially about hard stuff—is hard but in different ways, even though some strategies for achieving greater clarity work in both modes.

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