Written and spoken language differ in many ways. However some forms of writing are closer to speech than others, and vice versa. Below are some of the ways in which these two forms of language differ:
Writing is usually permanent and written texts cannot usually be changed once they have been printed/written out.
Speech is usually transient, unless recorded, and speakers can correct themselves and change their utterances as they go along.
A written text can communicate across time and space for as long as the particular language and writing system is still understood.
Speech is usually used for immediate interactions.
Written language tends to be more complex and intricate than speech with longer sentences and many subordinate clauses. The punctuation and layout of written texts also have no spoken equivalent. However some forms of written language, such as instant messages and email, are closer to spoken language.
Spoken language tends to be full of repetitions, incomplete sentences, corrections and interruptions, with the exception of formal speeches and other scripted forms of speech, such as news reports and scripts for plays and films.
Writers receive no immediate feedback from their readers, except in computer-based communication. Therefore they cannot rely on context to clarify things so there is more need to explain things clearly and unambiguously than in speech, except in written correspondence between people who know one another well.
Speech is usually a dynamic interaction between two or more people. Context and shared knowledge play a major role, so it is possible to leave much unsaid or indirectly implied.
Writers can make use of punctuation, headings, layout, colours and other graphical effects in their written texts. Such things are not available in speech
Speech can use timing, tone, volume, and timbre to add emotional context.
Written material can be read repeatedly and closely analysed, and notes can be made on the writing surface. Only recorded speech can be used in this way.
Some grammatical constructions are only used in writing, as are some kinds of vocabulary, such as some complex chemical and legal terms.
Some types of vocabulary are used only or mainly in speech. These include slang expressions, and tags like y'know, like, etc.
James A. Winans, who graduated from Hamilton College in 1897 and went on to chair Cornell’s Department of Oratory and Debate, said, “A speech is not an essay on its hind legs.” This was Winans’ way of saying that writing and speaking are significantly different. One way in which they differ is in the language and sentence structures they typically employ.
What is more effective in most speaking situations is what is called oral style. Compared with writing, effective oral style is characterized by the following*:
- More words that refer to people and human relationships to help create and sustain interest and attention.
- More personal pronouns — such as I, we, you, and our — to aid in the establishment of identification, to make a connection with our listeners.
- Shorter thought units, including sentence fragments, to make oral presentations easier to follow.
- More repetition of words, phrases, and sentences to emphasize important ideas and information.
- More familiar words to increase audience identification and understanding.
- More colloquial words and shortened forms (such as contractions), which help make the language more lively and conversational.
- Much less use of terms and phrases that work in writing but can lose their meaning or become confusing in speaking. Examples: “as mentioned above,” “the former…the latter,” and “respectively.”
In addition, effective oral presentations tend to feature much more:
- Announcing…what the speaker is doing now or is going to do next.
- Signaling…where the speaker is in the explanation or argument.
- Recapping…what has been said and what is important to take away as the speaker moves on.
*Adapted in part from Osborn, R.P. & Osborn, S. (1994). Public Speaking. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.