kitchen table math, the sequel: talking isn't writing, part 2

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

talking isn't writing, part 2

John McWhorter gives the timeline.

I think he may be wrong (or perhaps I mean misleading) about the simplicity of spoken English, however:
Thus spoken language is fundamental, while written language is an artifice. Not surprisingly, then, the earliest writing was based on the way people talk, and that meant short sentences with a direct logical throughline. Researchers have found that even educated people today speak in word packets of 7 to 10 words a pop.

Talking With Your Fingers
I'm not so sure about that "direct logic throughline" concept, I must say. As far as I can tell, the Longman Grammar corpus study found that conversational English is more grammatically complex than linguists have assumed, which may (or may not) mean that the logic of spoken English is less direct than the simple Subject-Verb-Object ordering we imagine is typical of speech. And it strikes me that transcripts of spoken English often show a certain meandering quality.

But I don't know.

[update 4/27/2012: As I think about it, I realize I have no idea whether transcripts do or do not show meandering...]

RELATED: The single most fascinating article I've read on the question of novice versus professional writing is Bill Robinson's Rhetorical and Grammatical Dependency in Adverb Clauses, which appeared in a 1995 edition Syntax in the Schools.

Robinson summarizes Kellogg Hunt's study comparing K-12 students to professional writers. Surprisingly, Hunt found that professional writers did not use more subordinate clauses than novice writers:
In short, the high school seniors were using coordination and subordination at almost the same rate as professional writers of superior ability.
The major difference between professionals and students was that professionals wrote much longer sentences, 40% longer to be exact. And what made the sentences of professionals longer wasn't the presence of more clauses per sentence, but the presence of longer clauses.

It seems that professionals do a great deal of "noun modification."

Which, upon reflection, I'm thinking is right. At the moment, if I had to say what I do that a student writer does not do, I would go with: noun modification and plenty of it!

EXCEPT: I'm not so sure that's true of blog writing.

How much noun modification is going on in this post, for instance?

Not too much. Assuming I know what noun modification actually is, of course, which I may not.

I probably need a 1200-page corpus study to nail this down.

update 4/27/2012: Actually, there's a lot of noun modification going on in a subject as long as this one: "The single most fascinating article I've read on the question of novice versus professional writing..."


Amy P said...

When you take oral speech and try to do a written transcript of it, it's very meandering, very stop-and-go, very elliptical, even if it's a smart, educated person speaking.

I think a big difference between oral and written English is that good written English is much clearer and more efficient than spoken English because it's the product of lots of planning and editing.

Katharine Beals said...

In terms of awkward sentences written by students, what I'm seeing is an avoidance of modified nouns as subjects. Instead, the would-be modified-noun subject is "factored out" of the sentence into a modifier, and then replaced by "it":

In Happe’s article it is said that this deficit is due to an autistic children’s inability to infer a communicator’s intentions.

[As opposed to Happe's article says that... Notice, btw, that the final noun phrase, the object of "due to", is headily modified]


By discovering which parts of communication are more challenging to develop, it can help speech researchers discover where people with other language and communication challenges stumble as well.

[Instead of: Discovering which parts of communication are more challenging can help...]

Katharine Beals said...

Actually, only the first example ("Happe's article") is a modified noun; the second one is a sentential subject ("Discovering which parts of communication are more challenging"). So more precisely what I'm seeing is an avoidance of any syntactically complex element in subject position.
Perhaps this goes for speech as well?

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine! Hi!

Dying to talk to you! (And fading in the stretch here...)

oh! I'm starting to see what you're talking about --- you sent some of these sentences to me a while back, and I didn't sit down and really look at them.


Biber (I think it's Biber) says that conversational speech actually has a different structure .... a **somewhat** different structure from classic subject-verb-object.

If I'm remembering correctly, he says that spoken English tends to have a preface - sentence - coda structure. (I might be wrong about the coda, but I remember the preface correctly.)

I'm going to go look it up....

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, I'm still tenuous enough with these terms that I'm not sure it's accurate to say that I don't do lots of noun modification in blog posts ....

A phrase like "the single most fascinating article I've read on the question of novice versus professional writing" would have to max out most noun modification counts, I think.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh heck - now I can't find it

Catherine Johnson said...

At the moment, it seems to me that writing involves a huge amount of 'compression' (not a linguistic term).

Sentences turn into phrases turn into words - and what seems to drive this is the 'need' to stuff as much inside just one sentence as humanly possible - AND what seems to drive this is the need to have sentences flow, or, alternatively, stick together.

When I write, it is a constant challenge to create sentence pairs that will move a reader seamlessly from Sentence Number 1 to Sentence Number 2.

The easiest way to do this is to combine Sentence Number 1 and Sentence Number 2 into just one sentence, which I do constantly.

I **think** I notice that, over the years, I'm closer and closer to one-sentence paragraphs. (And I remember reading SOMEWHERE - won't be able to recall that source at the moment - that a paragraph basically IS one sentence, or one sentence split up into sentence parts.

(Presumably, that author was talking about more contemporary, short paragraphs, not the much longer paragraphs people used to write...)

In any event, if you think of a paragraph as being about one tightly focused topic, it makes sense to think of a paragraph as one long sentence.