kitchen table math, the sequel: writing is hard, talking is easy

Saturday, March 31, 2012

writing is hard, talking is easy

A few weeks ago, one of my students asked me why we're doing sentence combining exercises in class.

Good question.

In theory, the reason we're doing sentence combining exercises is that the research on sentence combining is positive, which is what I told my class. However, I have not actually read any of this research myself, so the real reason(s) we are doing sentence combining exercises are:

a) Arthur Whimbey recommended doing them

b) Robert Connors thought sentence combining was a good idea


c) a commenter here at ktm once reported that Morningside Academy uses sentence combining, which indeed appears to be the case. (I love ktm commenters.)

Still, although my faith in these sources is high, and although the notion of giving students practice combining sentences makes a kind of gut-level sense to me, I have the same question my student had, only I phrase it a bit differently.

My question is:  What is it about writing, anyway?

Why is it so hard?

And why is talking so easy?

Talking is easy, writing is hard ---- Why?

I've been mulling this over for at least a year now, and today I'm thinking one of the main reasons  writing is hard is that writing IS sentence combining. Sentence combining isn't just an exercise designed to help students learn to write; sentence combining is writing. It's what writers do.

Of course, people combine sentences all the time when they talk. It's perfectly natural and normal (and easy) for a person to say "I went home because I felt sick," which is a combination of the sentences "I went home" and "I felt sick."

It's perfectly natural and normal for a writer to write "I went home because I felt sick," too. However, arguably it is just as natural and normal for a writer to write, "Because I felt sick, I went home," whereas I have never heard a person actually say, out loud, "Because I felt sick, I went home" or its syntactic equivalent.

And I have certainly never heard a person say, out loud, anything on the order of "Weeping, shuddering, he sat on the edge of the bed." (Lois Lowry, The Giver)

Nobody talks that way, but everybody writes that way (everybody who knows how to write, that is). I don't know what writers do, exactly, that makes writing so different from speaking, but we do seem to move "sentence constituents" around a whole lot more than talkers do.

Which brings me back to my students. I can't remember whether I've talked about this before, but one of the issues you see in freshman writing is something I call "jumbled sentences." When I first encountered jumbled sentences, I didn't know what to make of them; they are so strange to me that I can't (yet) imitate them myself. I can't imitate them because I don't understand how they're put together.

I'll try to come up with some examples I can disguise well enough to post.

update: Here's one.

My impression is that often these sentences start out fine, but then the wheels come off somewhere along the line.

I'm thinking perhaps novice writers produce jumbled sentences because they're trying to combine lots of short, declarative sentences (or short declarative thoughts, more likely) into much longer constructions -- which is exactly the right impulse -- but they've had so little practice writing (and reading) complicated sentences that they lose control after the first clause or so.

But I don't know.

Here is Jim Miller on talking versus writing:
Many kinds of spoken language, not just the spontaneous speech of domestic conversation or discussions in pubs, have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing. It is essential to understand that the differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary. In spite of the huge prestige enjoyed by written language in any literate society, spoken language is primary in several major respects. There are, or were until recently, societies with a spoken language but no written language, but no societies with only a written language; children usually learn to speak long before they learn to read and write; and the vast majority of human beings use speech far more often than writing.

The syntax of spontaneous spoken language has been ‘designed’ or ‘developed’ to suit the conditions of speech – little planning time, the possibility of transmitting information by loudness, pitch and general voice quality, and support from hand gestures, facial expressions and so on (what is known as ‘non-verbal communication’). For a particular language, the syntax of spontaneous speech overlaps with the syntax of formal writing; there is a common core of constructions. For instance, "The instructions are useless" could be spoken or written. However, many constructions occur in speech but not in writing, and vice versa. "She doesn’t say much – knows a lot though" is typical of speech, but typical of writing is "Although she does not say much, she knows a lot."

The special syntax of spontaneous spoken language is not produced just by speakers with the minimum of formal education. One of the most detailed investigations of spoken syntax was carried out in Russia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speakers recorded on tape in all sorts of informal situations were doctors, lawyers and academics, but their speech turned out to be very different in syntax from written Russian. Moreover, their syntax had general properties which have turned up in bodies of spontaneous spoken English, French and German.

This book deals with concepts suitable for the analysis of all types of language, from spontaneous unplanned conversation to planned and edited formal writing. The one exception is the unit that we call ‘sentence’. Attempts to apply this unit to spontaneous speech have not been successful; speakers disagree, sometimes spectacularly, on where sentences begin and end in recordings of spontaneous speech in their native language. The sentence appears to be a unit developed for formal writing. It is also appropriate for the analysis of planned speech where the syntax is that of writing.

People learn the syntax and vocabulary of formal writing from books and in school in a process that lasts into the early twenties for university graduates and can continue much longer. In general, the more exposure speakers have to formal schooling, the more easily and frequently they use in speech the syntax and vocabulary that are typical of formal writing.
Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.


Karldw said...

I assume you are speaking of writing at the denotational level, of course.

Catherine Johnson said...

Denotationally speaking!

Jean said...

Talking is a natural human behavior, but writing is not--it's a code that has to be learned, and it's not just like talking at all. Humans got along just fine for a long time with only a tiny percentage of them able to write.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Jean!

That's true ---- BUT the very strange thing (to me, at least) is that native speakers are experts in English grammar, and yet they write ungrammatical sentences.

That's the part I can't figure out.

The difference between writing and talking isn't analogous to the difference between reading and talking, I don't think.

btw, in this post I'm **just** talking about the sentence level.

Writing an argument, supporting it, thinking it through --- that's a whole 'nother level of HARD.

Catherine Johnson said...

It wasn't 'til I spent some time really meditating on Kolln that I realized how 'wrong' (or misleading or something) it is to say that students 'don't know' grammar. They do know grammar; they know English grammar extremely well.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, when I look for help with this I keep coming up with writing instructors explaining the issues involved in ebonics, but that's not what I'm talking about, and discussions of ebonics are no help.

I'm talking about students who speak the same dialect I speak, who use the same spoken grammar I use, but who don't write grammatically.

I think Jim Miller is right: the sentence is an invention of writing in some sense.

SATVerbalTutor. said...


I'm assuming that this post may have been inspired (at least in part) by our exchange a little while back... The writing I sent you definitely had a LOT of jumbled sentences. I've been mulling over the problem, and one of the things I think may be going on is that a lot of high school kids who can speak perfectly grammatical English somehow get the idea that writing is really different from speaking. They know it's supposed to sound more "sophisticated," but they have absolutely no idea how to get there, and sometimes they just cram lots of clauses together because they don't want to sound simplistic or immature. But because no one's insisted they learn what goes into a sentence or what distinguishes it from a fragment, they lose control when they start tacking on clauses, and the whole thing turns into nonsense. I often start by trying to get them to write simple sentence, and they have an incredibly hard time with it. They desperately want to make things more complex, and I have to constantly remind them to simplify.

Anonymous said...

They know it's supposed to sound more "sophisticated," but they have absolutely no idea how to get there, and sometimes they just cram lots of clauses together because they don't want to sound simplistic or immature.

I suspect this lies close to the heart of the matter. It kind of reminds me of kids playing dress-up: they have some sort of idea about what the end result should be, but since they are left by and large to their own devices, their imitative attempts wind up producing caricatures of the real thing.

Anonymous said...

The time factor is also pretty significant in explaining why people who speak grammatically produce sentences (or what turn out to be sentence fragments) that are so different. Most people utter sentences that take a few seconds to produce. They can grasp the whole thing in their heads as a unit, and are aware if they have not yet included a verb, or if they have already used a particular adjective (whether or not they're using the words "verb" or "adjective" in their heads. They can sense the shape of the sentence easily. When we switch to writing, the time frame is extended to many seconds or even a minute for some sentences. The writer has a harder time sensing the shape of the sentence and intuiting what's there, what's missing, and what has started to repeat or be redundant. Gaining the habit of expanding one's memory of what s/he has already produced so that it will be in alingment with what's about to be produced (within a sentence or paragraph) takes a lot of practice and/or really good instruction.

Crimson Wife said...

It is my belief that all students should be formally taught the various sentence patterns (the book The Art of Styling Sentences lists 20 of them) and then practice writing imitations like the ones in Don Killgallon's sentence composing series or Harry Noden's Image Grammar. College writing instructors would presumably see far fewer jumbled sentences in their students' papers if those students had been taught the sentence patterns in middle or high school.

FedUpMom said...

This discussion reminds me of a time, many years ago, when I was helping a woman I worked with to write a short piece (I think for a grant proposal -- I don't quite remember.)

I was truly shocked at what a poor writer she was, considering how well she spoke. She was smart, thoughtful, and clear to speak to, but just a mess on the page.

I told her she should try saying her ideas out loud and then writing down what she said. Actually, I think this would be a useful place for a lot of people to start; just transcribe what you say.

Anonymous said...

Susan Wise Bauer says on one of her writing tapes to have your child answer you in complete sentences when they're young. I wish I had done that with my kid. He mumbles in phrases and finds writing out full sentences to be exhausting.


SATVerbalTutor. said...

@ Anonymous, bingo on the time factor. The difference in scale between talking and writing is something a lot of kids have trouble tuning into naturally -- the fact that they have to essentially go in slow motion and explain out every piece of their thought bit by bit is something that (understandably) feels incredibly odd to them. They just don't understand how much they need to explain -- after all, what they're saying is clear to them! They have a lot of trouble putting themselves in the reader's shoes and seeing that someone else might find their words hard to follow.

I also find that trying to get them to write the way they talk can backfire: when they talk, they can gesture, use facial expressions, etc. to convey their point. They can also break off halfway through a sentence and switch gears completely without losing the meaning. In writing, that doesn't work. It feels incredibly structured and abstract and artificial, and there are all these rules...

Allison said...

i don't think speaking clearly or well is all that easy for most young adults. if you transcribe them, rather than participate with them in a conversation, you migt have a different imoression.

many people, and young people in particular, get lost in their own train of thought. they interrupt themselves, change subject agreement, restart sentences midway through, have fragments. but when we listen, we parse all of that to sound coherent. it becomes clear what a mess the thinking is if it's written down.

ChemProf said...

Even when they have a pretty well formed sentence, many students can't hold it in their heads long enough to write it down. In other words, there is no point in telling them to transcribe what they said -- they no longer remember precisely what they said! I think that's one of the worst things about the de-emphasis of memorization in the early grades. All that poetry memorization trained the brain in ways that are really helpful for good writing (plus it means you have a brain full of well-written sentences to think about).

I think the desire for formality without any idea of how to do it is also a big issue. I get some weird student emails, written in this quasi-legalese which is hard to follow. They are trying to be very formal,but it just comes out strange.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

I think the desire for formality without any idea of how to do it is also a big issue. I get some weird student emails, written in this quasi-legalese which is hard to follow. They are trying to be very formal,but it just comes out strange.

Absolutely. That's what I see all the time. They know there's a way that adults write that makes them sound, well, adult, but they don't have the tools to figure out the difference between their own writing and "adult" writing, and so when they try to mimic the latter, it frequently just comes out as a mess.

It also doesn't help that a lot of their parents don't seem to know how to write either -- I've had parents presumably people in their forties and fifties, send me tutoring inquiries written in text speak (can u see her sat if ur not 2 busy?) or filled with tons of grammatical errors. As a general rule, if the parent has no basic sense of grammar, the kid will have problems.

Anonymous said...

I think that the problem goes back all the way to kindergarten. Whereas, I was started with copying correct sentences from the board, and progressing through dictation before doing any free composition, kids are now writing "stories" and journaling long before they know how to compose a sentence and their writing is often not corrected for spelling and grammar - apparently making such correction is now rare at the ES level. It takes many years to learn to write correctly and the process is cumulative. The heavy focus on personal narratives also means that kids are not learning the formal structure of academic ("adult") writing. There was a good post on this site about the different types of language, from verbatim recitation (Pledge of Allegiance, religious responses) all the way to personal communication between intimates.

ChemProf said...

I have to admit this is the biggest reason we are planning on homeschooling -- I want the parts of early writing broken out in early elementary (handwriting separate from sentence formation, with copy work or dictation, memorization of speeches and poetry, and narration) and locally I just can't find that. I think the way that all of these are mixed together currently is a disaster for a lot of kids.

SteveH said...

"They know it's supposed to sound more "sophisticated,"..."

It also takes up more space. I distinctly remember not liking to simplify my writing because I needed to write a certain number of pages or words. It was only much later that I learned how less can be more. Teachers should define the topic and audience and then ask for a maximum number of words, not a minimum. College essays are probably the first time many students meet this requirement. They are driven to write more, but they can't. I read one story about how an online application couldn't quite handle the maximum number of allowed words (maybe it was based on a maximum number of characters) and the student struggled to cut it down to fit the limit.

I never knew how much effort some people put into their writing. I now fuss over everything. I tend to write way too much and don't like cutting because I put too much time into the effort. Then I realize that I'm going far afield and will lose (or bore) my audience.

TerriW said...

Oh, I hated page counts.

Now that I'm adult, I've learned to blather on and on endlessly about a topic (a little *too* well), but when I was in high school/college, I was extremely terse and page counts were the bane of my existence.

Invariably, I would write my paper, feel like I met the objective/answered the question ... and see that I had about half to two thirds of the required page count. Then began the process of adding extraneous words and padding out paragraphs until I hit the magic number.

(Note: I did very well in college, grade-wise, so I don't think that I'm just recalling this with rose colored glasses.)

Catherine Johnson said...

writing is really different from speaking

Writing IS really different from speaking!

I think that's the problem ---

There are all kinds of grammatical constructions that we never use when speaking.

In fact, at least according to Miller, we don't **exactly** use sentences when speaking. Not in the sense of "t-units" (which is the main clause & all its dependents & modifiers....)

(I don't know whether linguists use the expression t-units; I'm guessing they don't. Am forgetting, now, who used it ..... Kellogg??)

Catherine Johnson said...

It is my belief that all students should be formally taught the various sentence patterns (the book The Art of Styling Sentences lists 20 of them) and then practice writing imitations like the ones in Don Killgallon's sentence composing series or Harry Noden's Image Grammar.


That's where I am with all this.

Writing is VERY different from talking. Radically different.

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm with chemprof, too. If I had it to do over again, I would have Chris do copy work & dictation.

I'm having my students do some copy work. We do as many jumbled-sentence exercises as we can, and I ask them to copy out the whole sentence after they've unjumbled it.

Same with jumbled paragraphs.

Catherine Johnson said...

Unfortunately, there is NO curriculum for this. I've come to admire Killgallon, but virtually all of the sentences he gives students are drawn from fiction -- which, I'm coming to believe, is also quite different from nonfiction writing.

I've got to dive into "The Art of Styling Sentences."

Catherine Johnson said...

I tend to write way too much and don't like cutting because I put too much time into the effort.

I do VAST amounts of cutting.

For one of the Temple books, I spent months figuring out an entire theory of Why Animals Play (that was probably pretty good) --- this was a major intellectual effort.

I devoted maybe 30 pages to it....and then I cut every last page. Just wiped the whole thing out.

I still remember the sound of our editor's voice when that came up.

She was impressed.

I bet professional writers are often like that. I wonder how many thousands of pages I've thrown out?

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous, if you're still around, can you tell us more about how you were taught to write?

Catherine Johnson said...

I also find that trying to get them to write the way they talk can backfire: when they talk, they can gesture, use facial expressions, etc. to convey their point.

Right. Writing isn't talking --- not even close.

I have a book here by a (linguist? - can't remember) who argues that learning to write is like learning to speak a second language.

I haven't read the book, and offhand the analogy strikes me as wrong, but the fact that someone sat down and wrote a whole book **arguing** that writing is akin to second language acquisition is significant.