The Read-Write Debate

Should we write as we speak or speak as we write?


According to Jyoti Sanyal, author of “Indlish—the book for every English-Speaking Indian”, this debate has been going on for centuries. He says that written English began as a write-as-you speak movement. Casual, simple writing was encouraged. A good example of this is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was very close to the speech of that time. Fifty years later, Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) felt that plain English was not ornate enough and encouraged people to speak as they would write. Thus, began flowery language. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) reversed the rule again when he said that poetry should use the real language of men. Then, the Victorians brought back pompous writing into vogue. The famous Charles Dickens’ character Micawber in David Copperfield was so afraid of speaking ordinarily that he always wrote down something in stilted English and read it out!


The King’s English, published in 1901, told aspiring writers to be ‘direct, simple, brief, vigorous and lucid’. This trend has more or less continued. Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” that all writers refer to also advocates simplicity and clarity of thought in writing. We are asked to “omit needless words” and “avoid a succession of loose sentences”. In the chapter on style, Strunk and White advises us to write in a way that comes naturally to us and use words and phrases that come readily to hand.


But it’s a particularly Indian trait to equate “impressive” English with incomprehensible English. We use high-sounding words, words that are archaic, stilted, and no longer in vogue just to sound educated and prove that we are intellectual.


However, with globalization of the economy and outsourcing, we are now trying to embrace American English. Americans are known for their informal, direct and casual communication.


While writing marketing collateral, we’ve been trained to be direct and pragmatic, and to omit “marketing fluff” or jargon. We are encouraged to stick to what’s familiar, speaking in the reader’s own language. Direct, clear writing that is refreshing in its simplicity is the need of the hour. Even the client endorsements we provide in our collateral need to sound genuine, like someone would have actually said them; not something they were persuaded to come up with for the sake of it.


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