Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Written v. Spoken English: Still quite different

with 3 comments

Interesting article by Ben Zimmer in the NY Times Sunday Book Review:

We like to think that modern fiction, particularly American fiction, is free from the artificial stylistic pretensions of the past. Richard Bridgman expressed a common view in his 1966 book “The Colloquial Style in America.” “Whereas in the 19th century a very real distinction could be made between the vernacular and standard diction as they were used in prose,” Bridgman wrote, “in the 20th century the vernacular had virtually become standard.” Thanks to such pioneers as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, the story goes, ornate classicism was replaced by a straight-talking vox populi.

Now in the 21st century, with sophisticated text-crunching tools at our disposal, it is possible to put Bridgman’s theory to the test. Has a vernacular style become the standard for the typical fiction writer? Or is literary language still a distinct and peculiar beast?

Scholars in the growing field of digital humanities can tackle this question by analyzing enormous numbers of texts at once. When books and other written documents are gathered into an electronic corpus, one “subcorpus” can be compared with another: all the digitized fiction, for instance, can be stacked up against other genres of writing, like news reports, academic papers or blog posts.

One such research enterprise is the Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA, which brings together 425 million words of text from the past two decades, with equally large samples drawn from fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, academic texts and transcripts of spoken English. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 July 2011 at 9:26 am

3 Responses

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  1. A few years ago I read all seven detective novels written by Raymond Chandler. The original publication dates range from 1939 to 1953. Chandler used the slang and argot of the time, which makes his books – well, not difficult to read, but the language is sometimes awkward. When I mentioned this to another reader, he observed that fiction written a hundred years ago is easier to read than the work of Chandler, reason being that the language is more direct and not filled with the slang of the period. Ernest Hemingway wrote simply and directly and is still an easy read. There’s something to be said for that.


    31 July 2011 at 12:55 pm

  2. Meanwhile, English teachers across the nation are attacking Strunk & White as passe. Please. Clarity and brevity will never be out of style!


    31 July 2011 at 11:36 pm

  3. I’m astonished that English teachers would attack Strunk & White. On what grounds, I wonder. I did not like the most recent revision—-the new examples tend to be slack and weak—but certainly the general advice is still valid. With what do they replace S&W?


    1 August 2011 at 8:00 am

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