Words as sounds

Words are really just well-orchestrated gasps and lisps and flickings of the tongue. Linguists, who study such things, have technical terms for all this, but here we need only note that, to put it most simply:

Words are sounds.

Of course, in a literate world, words are also marks on a page -- or in our digital age, pixels on a screen. For the purposes of this section, we'll focus on sound, and we'll imagine that whatever sounds appealing to our ear guides our word choice. It follows that as your tastes and skills change, so too will your word choices. Expect those changes as you work through this course.

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We all read words in our own style; we have reading styles as much as we have writing styles. When you teach children to read you need to teach them that dialogue "sounds" different from the narrative of a text. You need to teach them how to pause at a comma, and that the pause at a semicolon is slightly longer than at a comma, though shorter than a full stop because the semicolon separates two related, though complete, thoughts. (Semicolons are the most risky of punctuation!) These are the sorts of skills that educators measure when assessing whether children are making progress with their reading.

Similar assessments apply to how we evaluate our own writing. To edit our own works is, partly, to adjust the sounds, the cadence, the musicality of the flow of our words. We hear our own words in a particular way, and part of our task as writers is to guide readers to hear a similar performance in their heads.

This is important to consider closely: no reader will "hear" your words exactly as you intend them to sound. Just as we all read aloud differently, we all read to ourselves differently, and our reading style is as distinct as our fingerprints.

Writers influence readers' reading styles by careful word choice, sentence construction, and overall structure -- all of which we will talk about in subsequent modules here. We develop our sense of word choice by reading, conversing, singing, speaking out loud, and so on. Certain sounds and tones will seem inappropriate to the ear. For example, the word “thus” takes a tone I never want to take, and, to me, interrupts the flow of a sentence. Why not find a way to use “so”?

No word is off limits, but many won’t fit just right here or there. Developing a sense of fit is essential for good writing – not only grammar and definition, but sonic fit as well. This kind of detail means at least as much as definition – in fact, I’d rather hear the right sound than read the right word. (Definitions will change long before the sense of resolution and closure that accompany good cadence.)

In the next activity, I'll ask you to think about specific words and how they sound. The purpose is to begin developing your sensitivity to the sonic quality of words -- their tone, their cadence, the rhythms they create in a flow, the inflections we suggest by punctuation and placement in a sentence. It gets complicated, so let's start simply with specific words you like and dislike.

Last modified: Friday, 3 August 2018, 2:36 AM