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Writing is often thought to be superior to speech

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Traditionally, writing has often been considered the superior mode of communication: since the medieval age, when the majority of the populace was illiterate, the ability to write acknowledged one as a member of the upper class social elite, this association having secured writings connection with scholarship and knowledge. Certainly, there exists a myriad advantages afforded by writing.

However, in more recent years the significance of speech has been increasingly recognized, partly through the development of technology such as the telephone, television and radio. This mode of communication is now rated more highly- for example, by GCSE examining boards, which now consider ‘speaking and listening’ to be an integral component of the English examination. Writing is not ultimately superior to speech- the two modes each have their own uses and appropriateness to different situations.

In certain circumstances, writing would appear to exist as the superior mode of communication. A significant advantage of writing over speech is its permanence rather than it being transient (notwithstanding technological developments of the last century, enabling speech to be recorded). Therefore, a piece of writing may be read by different people, in many different times and places. Further suggestions that writing is superior to speech originate from the fact that the reader holds a variety of advantages over the listener.

The reader is able to assimilate written information at their own pace, and possess the ability to return to the written text to refresh their memory and confirm their understanding. Much of speech tends to be transient, and whilst the listener may often request the speaker to reiterate, speech affords a greater risk of information being misunderstood, misheard or missed altogether. The reader also has other benefits when compared with the listener. For example, most writing tends to conform to Standard English.

In speech, a regional accent or dialect may distract the listener from what is being said, lead to lack of intelligibility or cause the speaker to encounter prejudice. Conversely, the reader of Standard English encounters no social difficulties. There exists also an argument that the reader absorbs information at a higher rate than the listener: the average reading speed being approximately three-hundred words per minute, whilst that of speaking (and therefore listening) is, at most, one hundred and seventy-five words per minute.

As concerns the recipient, writing may often seem to be the superior mode of communication. The writer may also be seen to possess several advantages over the speaker. The presence of an audience for a writer is most unnecessary – vast distances may separate thousands of readers of dissimilar times and locations without detracting from the communication of the text. A writer is usually in a far stronger position to prepare what they wish to write, and can devise an easily followed structure for their writing whilst being able to redraft their work until they are satisfied.

However, spoken English is generally spontaneous, and exists in long, complex, often disjointed constructions, and cannot be retracted once spoken. A final advantage of writing over speech is that writing is most suitable for recording long, complex pieces of information- a piece of speech generally has to be shorter and more concise. In more informal situations, however, and especially when a social tool is required for building personal relationships with others, speech exists as the superior mode of communication.

A social situation where one would have to communicate through writing is ridiculous and unimaginable. The speaker does hold various advantages over the writer, and these advantages may often have been ignored by perscriptivists who have considered writing to be the superior mode of communication. A speaker, for example, usually has the benefit of instant feedback from their audience, and reserves the right to modify their speech accordingly. A speech may be geared towards a particular context, for example by the use of deictic expressions such as ‘this one’ and ‘over there’.

In writing, all such references must be incorporated into the actual text, a more complex process. The speaker may give additional emphasis to what they say through the simultaneous use of non-verbal communication (body language), prosodic features (pace, volume, tone, emphasis and rhythm) and appearance (choice of clothing). Whilst the writer may employ graphological techniques to emphasise contents, the speaker must harness the communicative qualities of the human body.

Speech may also include regional accents or dialects, and whilst these emphasize the individuality of the speaker and may result in greater empathy on the part of the recipient, particularly if of the same geographical or social origin. Whilst reading may be performed more quickly than listening, speaking is actually performed more rapidly than writing (a maximum of 175 words per minute, whilst writing affords a maximum of 25 words per minute). There therefore exists a case for arguing that speech affords the highest rate of communication.

Speech is often regarded as being responsible for introducing neologisms into language, and therefore for keeping English ‘alive’ through a wide and varied possible lexis. All of these examples suggest that in some ways, and in certain situations, speech may exist as the superior mode of communication. It may thus be seen that, despite the social and literary considerations of writing existing as the superior mode of communication, neither mode is truly superior to the other, since each has its own advantages and disadvantages, the two modes being entirely appropriate to completely different situations.

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