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How do people use spoken English at university?


How are speaking and writing different?

We learned last week that we use language differently inside and outside of university. To add to that, in university we also use language differently when we speak and when we write. I’m pretty sure professors did not deliberately decide to make spoken and written English different just to make life difficult for you. That being the case, can you think of why spoken language and written language are different from each other?

I’m sure you have thought of quite a few reasons. Here are a few I came up with.

  1. Speaking is more personal. The person we’re talking to is often right in front of us, and even if we don’t know them that well, we need to make small talk. Because of this, we use personal pronouns (I, you, we, etc.) a lot more in speech than in writing.

    On the other hand, in academic writing, we’re often writing to a group of people we don’t know, so we use personal pronouns less. Indeed, in academic writing we often use what’s called the agentless passive, where the person doing the action is not given in the sentence. For example: ‘The data was analysed’ rather than ‘I analysed the data’.

  2. Speaking is more interactive. We adjust what we say depending on who we’re talking to. We leave out things that we think they already know. For example, we might say ‘I’m going to the café when I’ve finished’ – the listener knows which café we’re referring to, and what we need to finish, so there is no need to include these details. The person we’re talking to can also ask us to clarify things that are not clear.

    On the other hand, in academic writing, we can’t really ask our reader what they already know, and they can’t ask us to clarify. Because of this, academic writing has to be more detailed and points need to be explained more carefully.

  3. Speaking is more time bound. The reader can read at any time they want, but we usually speak to people at a particular time and place, and then we need to go off and do other things. Because of this, we like to be brief in speaking. That’s why we turn ‘going to’ into ‘gonna’. People who live in Toronto say the name of their city so often they pronounce it as “Tronno”.

We also use some different words when we speak and when we write, and a good example of this is the ‘connectors’ that link our sentences or ideas together. Below are some connectors we use most frequently in academic spoken and written English, according to the researchers Lockman and Swales.


You can click the image to enlarge it.

As you can see, speaking has the very little word ‘so’ which is so useful we use it very often, whereas in writing we make use of a wider range of connectors.

From the above, it should be clear that speaking and writing are very different. This means that simply writing down what you say and submitting that as writing is a bad idea. With that in mind, why not do the following activity? Give yourself a topic, write about the topic, and then record yourself talking about the topic. Compare what you’ve written and what you’ve said, and think about how you can improve each one. Let me know how you get on by writing a comment below. Good luck!

Reference: Lockman, K, and Swales, J (2010). Sentence connector frequencies in academic writing.

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