Vernacular eloquence: What speech can bring to writing

Vernacular eloquence: What speech can bring to writing. By Peter Elbow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 456. ISBN 9780199782512. $19.95.

Reviewed by David D. Robertson, Spokane, WA

Peter Elbow’s long bibliography of investigations into freewriting culminates in this deeply informed and readable book. Eschewing footnotes and long-form citations for an intentionally personal point of view, he reaches conclusions that are frequently surprising but uniformly well-backed. E deftly summarizes research by scholars like Douglas Biber, Camilla Vasquez, and Wallace Chafe on ‘what’s best in speaking and writing’ (Part 1, especially Ch. 1). He highlights the communicative strengths of each as activities, modalities, and subjects of linguistic analysis, the clearest differences separating spontaneous speech, and planned writing. The fortes of writing (Ch. 2) include preserving utterances, sharing data, doing mathematics, and perceiving speech as an object. The act of speaking excels (Ch. 3) at being easy, getting to the gist, facilitating dialogue, and being inherently satisfying. Detailing the ‘virtues’ of speech (Chs. 4–5), E notes the superiority of speech at connecting with audiences; its freedom from standardized, restrictive syntax, nominalizing tendencies, etc.; and—partly because of intonation—its greater processibility and informational coherency. Ch. 6 argues the book’s core claim, that the ease of speaking can and should help improve people’s performance at the more difficult activity, writing.

Part 2, ‘Speaking onto the page’, carries this theme, referring to M.A.K. Halliday’s ideas of the two modalities as occupying a continuum. Ch. 7 discusses how unrehearsed drafting transfers speech’s strengths onto the academic page; Ch. 8 notes other frequent venues of spontaneous writing: diaries and letters, written exams, and now also blogs and email. In Ch. 9, E pauses to parry objections to harnessing casual speech in writing. Linguists recognize some (‘speaking onto the page will hasten impurity and change in written language’, 191ff); others perhaps less so (‘speech is for everyone, but literacy is an exclusionary club’, 196). E also specifies (in Ch. 10) his awareness that continual revision and editing remain necessary for success with unplanned and strictly formal writing.

Part 3 explores a reverse process. Reading one’s composition aloud is an unimpeachable check for fluency (Ch. 11), exposing the presence or absence of invaluable structures like intonation units, sounds and ‘music’ (Ch. 12). Ch. 13 on punctuation is especially well-researched, meditating on conflicting traditions and misleading assumptions. These can be handled by ‘careful reading aloud and listening’ (Ch. 14), letting one take advantage of the time-bound and -binding qualities of written language (Ch. 15, summarizing in Ch. 16). Part 4 examines writing as a gateway to literacy, considering why high-literacy culture tends to exclude speech (Ch. 17) and optimistically foreseeing changes to the status quo (Ch. 18).

E’s already lively presentation finishes each chapter with an evocative historical ‘Literacy story’. This book as a whole amounts to one keenly engaged observer’s literacy forecast: it concludes that the future promises a decentralized standard of good writing as that which genuinely reaches an audience. That point is well made and sure to inspire many an educator in this exciting and challenging time of flux. Those of us who teach grammar, usage, and composition will find here a sane perspective on hitherto hard and fast rules of English writing.