Writing and speaking

Fluent speakers of English (whether it is their first language, or a language that they speak very well) often assume that if they can speak English competently then they can write competently in English too. However, these are two very different skills. As children we acquire our native language through speaking and listening – skills that are learned naturally without being taught. Writing and reading are not acquired in the same way – they have to be specifically taught and only then are they learned. Some people, in fact, never learn to read and, consequently, never learn to write either.

Once we have learnt to read fluently, we can read almost anything that is not too technical in terms of our own skills. In other words, we can, for example, read anything in a newspaper but we might find it difficult to understand an economics research paper (unless we are economists) because of the technical language. In contrast, many people find that writing remains a challenge throughout their lives. Many of us are faced with many different writing challenges throughout our lives as our priorities and our careers change, and we take on more challenges. One of these, of course, is the challenge many under-graduates face when they are asked to write academic essays, but others include the need to write a good CV, to write reports as part of our job, or the need to take minutes in a meeting.


Can you think of any occasions when you have had to deal with new writing situations in English? What were they? How did you cope with the new situation? Were you successful or not?

What other differences are there between the skills of writing and speaking? One of the main differences is that when we are speaking we regularly produce grammatically incorrect expressions whereas when we are writing we are normally expected to write grammatically, and not only that, we are expected to spell the words correctly too!

If you listen carefully to an average speaker you will notice a number of mistakes and hesitations. A speaker may start a sentence and then stop half way through and change direction; a speaker may pepper his/her speech with hesitation sounds (umm…; er…) or with grammatically irrelevant words (He was, like, just sitting there, like, looking at me.). The speaker may misuse words (such as borrow and lend or less and few). As a writer, we will of course seek to avoid any grammatical mistakes of any sort.

As a skilled user of English you will be able to discriminate between the features of the spoken and written language quite easily although sometimes we deliberately choose to blur the lines between the two. For example, we might want to adopt a very informal tone when we are writing to friends or relatives. Look at the short example of an informal letter below and decide which features have been carried over from the spoken language.

Hi Fred,

How’s things? Just thought I’d write to see if you’d received my parcel and give you a few bits of news. I got into trouble at work again this week…..had a run in with the accounts manager and he complained to the head of the department and got me reprimanded for insubordination or something like that, but it didn’t worry me too much ‘cos I’d already decided to move on. Can you keep an eye out for anything that might suit? Nothing to demanding, but with a decent salary! ’nuff said…!

In this letter there are several carry-overs from the spoken language that are worthy of comment:

  • The use of Hi in the greeting
  • The use of contracted forms like I’dyou’d‘cos and ‘nuff (enough)
  • The use of dots in line 3 to link two sentences
  • Colloquial language such as: how’s thingshad a run in withkeep an eye out
  • A spelling mistake – to instead of too in the final sentence
  • The use of dots in the final line to indicate an unsaid continuation of the final sentence, which has been left to the interpretation of the reader
  • The repetitive use of and and but to join parts of sentences together.

These are all common features of the spoken language used in informal letters that we would not normally associate with a piece of ‘quality’ writing. We can contrast this with more formal examples of writing where we would be surprised to find unfinished sentences or contractions; for example in a newspaper article or a parliamentary report. The list of items above covers, of course, only a few of the many possible differences between speaking and writing.

Now try this task and then check your answers with those in the feedback section.


List down all the differences that you can think of between writing and speaking and then compare your list with the one in the feedback section.

Notes on Task

We learn to speak as very young children.Speech is often full of false starts and hesitations.Speech is often full of repetition.It often contains grammatical errors.We usually don’t speak in sentences.Speech contains a great deal of unstated but mutually understood information.Speaking involves facial expression, hand movements and body ‘language’ that carries a great deal of information to the listener.Generally we are speaking to a known audience.The response to speech can sometimes be immediate.Once something is said, it may be difficult or even impossible to take it back.The process of learning to write fluently takes many years and lags behind our progress in speaking.There are no hesitations or false starts in writing.Writing is generally not repetitive.Writing should be grammatically accurate.We generally have to write in grammatically accurate sentences.Everything should be stated more clearly in writing as there are no other clues to meaning.The reader has no access to these aids to communication.We are often writing for an unknown audience.Any response by the reader to the writer cannot be immediate.Writing can be drafted and re-drafted and changed many times before it is acceptable to the writer.