Try this: Go someplace public where you can eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation and listen carefully. I’m not interested in what other people are saying here, but how they are saying it. Listen to how they form their phrases, when they switch speakers, how often the over-talk each other, etc. Now go one step further and write it down – exactly as they said it – and see what you’ve got.
A mess – that’s what. Even your six-year-old nephew would know that’s bad writing. How can that be? It was a real conversation, why doesn’t it read like one?
The problem is that spoken English and Written English are not exactly the same language (dialect as the linguists say). As far as I know, this is actually true in all languages that have a written form but I’m most familiar with English. It can be confusing, since we call them both English and English teachers have a habit of not pointing this out when we are learning to read and write. This habit goes all the way to the top, so I would guess that many of them – those who didn’t take any linguistics courses – are in the same boat.
The first thing to notice about the differences between Spoken English and Written English is that Spoken English doesn’t have sentences, at least not the way they are defined in Written English. Spoken English is based entirely on phrases. Written English, on the other hand, is all about sentences. As you recall from basic English classes a sentence is made up of phrases. In fact, some sentences have only one phrase. This makes the confusion even easier until you look at what actually makes a sentence. What makes something a sentence is the punctuation. You start a sentence with a capital letter, separate the phrases with commas, dashes, colons or semi-colons, and end with a period, question mark or exclamation point. Spoken English doesn’t have these things. Spoken English doesn’t even have letters. It has sounds. It has pacing and pauses and rising or falling tones.
So back to our eavesdropping example. When you tried to write what you were hearing (unless you are a linguist and familiar with the coding systems that record all the sounds) you were substituting letters and punctuation for the sounds of the conversation. But that doesn’t explain all of the mess. The rest comes from the conversion between live sound and recorded writing. Much like the translation between books and movies, the form makes a difference.
As I mentioned above, Spoken English is all about phrases. The pauses and tones link the phrases into concepts. Some phrases will mirror Written Englishes sentences with a subject and a verb. Others don’t. Others are more like subordinate clauses, relying on other phrases to provide these basic pieces. While Written English insists on incorporating these kinds of phrases into sentences, Spoken English doesn’t. Spoken English is comfortable with phrases that don’t make for complete sentences. Why, because it has other methods of making sure that concepts are kept whole and linked appropriately. While linguists study the rules of Spoken English, the rest of us rely on our more organic methods of learning. Humans are born ready to learn a spoken language. We learn the methods and rules of our native language – the one we hear the most from the people we rely on – by listening and trying. Rules for Spoken English exist, but they aren’t taught the way that written English rules are. In other words, all your English classes were about Written, not Spoken, English.
Another difference between Written and Spoken English is that Written English is a recorded form with a distanced audience. Spoken English has a present audience. This gives Spoken English a reciprocal relationship with it’s audience. The speaker relies on feedback from the listener to adjust their speech to keep it understandable and relevant. Written English in the absence of live feedback, has the advantage of being edited. Many people are uncomfortable leaving recorded messages because of this lack of feedback. I know that my speech when I have to leave a message is often stilted or almost incoherent – sometimes I babble. When I know that I’m going to have to leave a message, I rehearse it ahead of time (edit) and still I have a hard time keeping it clear. The few times I’ve made videos of myself talking, I had to have someone stand behind the camera for me to talk to – even when it was scripted and rehearsed. My rather unscientific study of my classmates in my Interpreting classes suggests that many people feel the way that I do.
What does all this have to do with writing dialog?
Dialog exists on the intersection of the two forms of English. Since dialog is contained within a written story, it must follow the rules of Written English – the rules are there to make the language understandable. However, since it is meant to me a recording of Spoken English, it also has to follow the rules of Spoken English. Fortunately, the narrative form of Written English allows, grammatically, for sentence fragments to carry meaning. These fragments still have to have some of the basic structures of Written English, but they can be more like Spoken English. Readers are also rather forgiving. They don’t want to read Spoken English. They want to read an APPROXIMATION of Spoken English. It’s totally understandable when you think about it. The rules of Written and Spoken English are there to make the language easily understandable in their respective form. Spoken English needs the sounds, pacing and pauses to make it understandable, but these components aren’t available in the written form. You need the structure of Written English to make the written form understandable.
In the end, while you want dialog to read naturally as though it were spoken, you still have to use the rules and forms of Written English.
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