The previous eight chapters have focused on writing and research. While writing and researching are important academic skills, speaking is equally important. Spoken and written arguments are in many ways the same: both articulate positions in an assertive voice, both are organized according to purpose, and both present evidence based on the expectations of an audience. The main difference between spoken and written arguments is not what your ideas are but how you convey them.
Spoken arguments are conveyed in real time; as a student, you know this difference all too well. Consider which of the following scenarios is scarier: (1) You zone out for a couple of paragraphs before you have to respond to a couple of comprehension questions; (2) you’re in lecture and zone out for a few slides, but your professor calls on you to answer a question in class. Of course, the second scenario is scarier! That’s because, whereas you can reread a passage that you missed, it’s difficult to re-consult a lecture occurring in real time. As you prepare oral presentations, keep this difference in mind. Because your audience will not be able to review if they get lost or distracted, it is important to give your listeners some comprehension wiggle room.
To illustrate how one might go about transforming a written argument into a spoken one, take a look at these two paragraphs. The first paragraph comes from an student-written academic paper, and the second makes the same argument in language appropriate for an oral presentation. Notice that, though they contain the same information and make the same argument, each paragraph does so differently.
As a result of the increasing majoritarian agitation within American politics, many states began to reexamine their constitutions in order to better incorporate the desires of the common majority. One issue addressed within this field of political reform was the concept of universal male suffrage. Currently, the vote was extended to adult white males who owned land. Some statesmen wanted to extend suffrage to all adult white males regardless of their economic circumstances. George S. Camp articulated one of the most concise arguments in favor of universal male suffrage in 1841, in his book Democracy. For Camp, the right to vote was a natural right, attributed to men by the right of being human. He states, “All should have an equal voice in the public deliberations of the state, however unequal the point of circumstances, since human rights, by virtue of which alone we are entitled to vote at all, are the attributes of the man, not of his circumstances” (145). This statement neatly summarizes Camp’s belief that the right to vote is a natural human right, irrespective of any economic condition. It also implies that because every man had the right to vote despite their economic circumstances, no class had a greater stake in the government than another. Camp argues, “Property is merely the subject on which rights are exercised . . . We all have our rights, and no man has anything more” (146). For Camp, the economic situation of any human being was an “accident of fortune” and was of “true comparative insignificance” compared with the importance of “real attributes,” or natural rights, such as the right to vote; no man should be kept from exercising his rights because of his lack of economic prosperity.
That paragraph is difficult enough to read! Imagine trying to understand its argument if you could only listen to it. Enter this listener-friendly version (notice that it’s been broken into two smaller chunks).
In nineteenth-century America, only white male landowners could vote. There was considerable political unrest because the majority of people felt that their voices had not been heard, so states began to reexamine their constitutions. One major solution to this problem was universal male suffrage, which in this case meant that all white males could vote, regardless of landownership.
One proponent of universal male suffrage, George S. Camp, argued that the right to vote is a natural human right. Camp insisted that economic circumstances don’t affect a person’s natural right to vote. He called people’s ownership of property an exercise of rights, which means that all people have rights and nothing more. [pause] According to Camp, people in higher classes shouldn’t have a greater stake in government because all that people have are their rights.
In length alone, the spoken version is shorter. By simplifying sentence structure and vocabulary, the spoken version is much more easily understandable. The speaker is patient with their explanations and clarifies things for the audience (“which in this case meant that all white males could vote”). By understanding the limits of aural processing, you can tailor your oral presentation to the needs of your audience and create, in so doing, a more pleasant experience for all.
We have considered some of the differences between spoken and written communication and suggested some strategies to negotiate them. Understanding these differences will help you to take advantage of the real time, face-to-face context of oral communication.
Just breathe and relax, and it will be all right.
Differences in Dialectal/Cultural Rules.
Communication extends far beyond the grammatical features used by a speaker or writer. A person’s grammar may be technically correct, but the meaning of their words can provoke anger, laughter, misunderstanding, or outright confusion. Since language revolves around context, knowing the context in which you speak or write is essential to producing culturally appropriate messages. In linguistics, the study of these cultural and contextual language rules is called pragmatics.
Consider this example: You’ve decided to take your six-year-old cousin to the park for a picnic. You notice that a woman nearby is very pregnant. Your cousin also notices the person’s large belly and decides to walk up to her and say, “Wow! You must have eaten a lot of treats!” Although your cousin’s sentence is grammatically correct, they have made the significant English pragmatic mistake of talking about someone’s body and consumption. Maybe your young cousin heard their parent say this same sentence to the robust family dog but has not yet learned that speaking to humans in such a way is inappropriate.
Another example would be one of pragmatic differences between languages: a Caribbean student studying in the United States turns in a narrative and receives a low grade. The teacher’s comments point to the sequence of events within the narrative. However, what the teacher sees as unorganized and illogical is actually a culturally distinct method of storytelling that is different from the standard method (see Subsection 6.3.1) uses.
Here are some more pragmatic facts:
Other examples of pragmatic knowledge include knowing how and when to take turns speaking, make eye contact, and ask questions.
Other types of pragmatic knowledge include contributing relevant information to a conversation that is not redundant and adjusting the type of language based on the conversational situation.
Things like eye contact, head nodding, personal space, and amount of touching are also part of the pragmatics of a language and vary by language and culture.
There are three main aspects of communication that are essential to understanding the pragmatic situation of a conversation: 1) the literal meaning of what was spoken (locution), 2) the speaker’s intentions (illocution), and 3) the listener’s interpretation (perlocution).
Pragmatics is one major reason why it has been so difficult to program computers to speak and understand language. Try telling a robot to “crack a window,” and see what happens!