The Write Stuff
Write Like You Talk
By Alan Crawford,
Somewhere among the many thousands of words the late Christopher Hitchens wrote — or maybe he just said it — is a mention of how he learned to use the first-person singular pronoun in his essays. For most of his writing life, Hitchens said he found it difficult to use “I” in his articles.
One of the best prose stylists of our time, astonishingly well read and obviously steeped in the best literary traditions of his native England, Hitchens seemed to find lapsing into first person in otherwise elegant passages to be a kind of forced informality.
But then he realized that the real affectation was to avoid first person, when we use it all the time in everyday speech. So he began to use it whenever it seemed called for, and got over his initial reluctance. (The best word there would probably have been “eschew” first person, not avoid, but eschew sounds pretentious so I will eschew it.)
I thought of Hitchens — don’t we miss him? — while reading Gretchen McCulloch’s op-ed in the Dec. 29 New York Times. McCulloch, who calls herself an “internet linguist,” says this past decade, maybe this past year, is when we finally learned “to write the way we talk.” And we’ve done so without really trying, almost by accident.
While McCulloch sets up way too many straw men, which she proceeds to torch with rather too much enthusiasm, her point is well-taken. Most of us learned to write formally, using rules we were taught in school which we violated at our own peril. She calls the result a “formal, disembodied style” that hardly seems accurate or useful, but she’s on to something.
Would anybody argue that Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens wrote in a “formal, disembodied style”? They wrote such vivid prose precisely because they had mastered the rules and felt comfortable within them, and could express their ideas with a powerful specificity. If they didn’t know what they were doing, they’d not have written so well.
Where McCulloch is correct, I believe, is that when we write to each other using social media, we loosen up and write the way we talk. And that’s almost always a more effective way to communicate than striving, as too many people do — especially in a professional setting — to sound impressive. That’s when we adopt a language that is not our own. We try to sound “corporate,” which really is a “formal, disembodied style.”
When we talk with friends, we don’t have much trouble letting them know what’s on our minds. So if we could write the way we talk, we’d probably make ourselves better understood. And to the extent that we have learned to do this, it has been through email, text, Twitter and all the rest. It’s easy to be misunderstood in an email or text, of course, because we’re not face-to-face and can’t see facial expressions or hear tone of voice. But we’re beginning to make up for that deficiency through a range of devices (gimmicks?) that include “scare quotes,” Ironic Capitals, punctuation used thoughtfully, and of course emojis.
In that regard, social media in some ways has made us better writers. Who knew?
Annoying Word of the Month: Front-facing. Liberty University’s Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty has hired five people to speak for the institution, including a former contestant on The Bachelorette and an ex-Miss Arizona USA. They are to be the new think tank’s “front-facing spokespeople.”
What are spokespersons if not front-facing? Maybe the Falkirk Center can produce a scholarly monograph on the subject and tell us.
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