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It is difficult to convey intonation in typed speech

I just wanted to add the above comment to Bob’s notes on language. Spoken (and, to some extent, handwritten) language can be much more expressive than the typed version.

I’m not just talking about slang or words such as baaaaad; I’m also talking about pauses that give logical structure to a sentence. For example, sentences such as “The girl who hit the ball where the dog used to be was the one who was climbing the tree when the dog came by” are effortless to understand in speech but can be difficult for a reader to follow. Often when I write, I need to untangle my sentences to keep them readable.


  1. Peter Flom says:

    Very true. The sentence “I didn’t say John took the cookies” can mean many different things:

    1) *I* didn’t say John took the cookies – that is, someone else said it.
    2) I *didn’t* say John took the cookies – that is, I did not say this
    3) I didn’t *say* John took the cookies – that is, he may well have taken them, but I didn’t say so
    4) I didn’t say *John* took the cookies – I said someone else did!
    5) I didn’t say John took the *cookies* – no, he took the ice cream!

  2. S.T. says:

    You should try punctuation: it works miracles!

  3. Glenn Lawyer says:

    I’ve read that is the point to written speech — it allows you to NOT say what you don’t want to communicate. Very powerful.

  4. There are at least three major things missing from writing/reading that you get in a face-to-face conversation, intonation, gestures, and context.

    Intonation takes on various forms, including pauses (though they don’t show up where Andrew might think in face-to-face casual conversation, which is not at all like reading a prepared speech), volume (yelling, whispering, other emphases) and pitch (marking questions, providing contrast as in Peter Flom’s examples, etc.). In some languages, such as Chinese, pitch (aka tone) is lexical, meaning that stress can change the word (in English, a simple contrast involving a single vowel is pin/pen; in Chinese you get similar contrasts where the only difference is stress).

    Gestures, construed to include all sorts of body language, eye contact, etc., are also important. It’s one more reason why the phone is harder than face to face. (Skype, Google hangout, etc., don’t help much here because the timing is so important in spontaneous language understanding.)

    Context, that is the world around you, is also hugely important. It’s much easier to talk about things that are in front of you than about abstractions. Shared context keeps track of referents (what we’re talking about) for you and performs all kinds of disambiguation automatically through grounding (such as pointing at something so the listener knows which one we mean). It’s kind of like the difference between playing chess with a board and without a board.

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