Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing

Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing

Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing

Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing


Since the publication of his groundbreaking books Writing Without Teachers and Writing with Power, Peter Elbow has revolutionized how people think about writing. Now, in Vernacular Eloquence, he makes a vital new contribution to both practice and theory. The core idea is simple: we can enlist virtues from the language activity most people find easiest-speaking-for the language activity most people find hardest-writing. Speech, with its spontaneity, naturalness of expression, and fluidity of thought, has many overlooked linguistic and rhetorical merits. Through several easy to employ techniques, writers can marshal this "wisdom of the tongue" to produce stronger, clearer, more natural writing.

This simple idea, it turns out, has deep repercussions. Our culture of literacy, Elbow argues, functions as though it were a plot against the spoken voice, the human body, vernacular language, and those without privilege-making it harder than necessary to write with comfort or power. Giving speech a central role in writing overturns many empty preconceptions. It causes readers to think critically about the relationship between speech, writing, and our notion of literacy. Developing the political implications behind Elbow's previous books, Vernacular Eloquence makes a compelling case that strengthening writing and democratizing it go hand in hand.


The obsession that has kept me energized for the eight years of writing this book takes the form of both anger and excitement. I’ve long been angry at how our present culture of “proper literacy” tells us that we are not supposed to do our serious writing in the mother tongue we know best and possess in our bones—but rather only in the prestige, correct, edited version of standardized English or what I will sometimes call “correct writing.” This helps explain a lot that we see about serious writing in the world. Many people have learned to manage or handle adequately “correct English,” but in doing so, they muffle or clog their thoughts into language that’s far less clear and interesting than they could have used in the language of their talking. Many other people don’t even feel that writing is an option for them and feel excluded—yet they speak smart, eloquent, interesting things. and finally, even many of those who can write well are often reluctant to write, and they are continually distracted as they write by nagging critical voices.

I can’t change our culture’s more or less single standard for the language of serious literate writing (though I’ll discuss in the last two chapters a radical change that’s coming faster than most of us realize). But I can show how speakers of all the many versions of English can not only use their mother tongue (or whatever language comes most easily to mind and mouth) for serious writing, but in fact improve their serious writing by doing so.

More recent than my anger is my excitement. For most of my career, I’ve known how useful it is to invite wrong writing on the way to right writing. I’ve been a champion of freewriting. Like many others, I’ve known that freewritten language tends to be lively and even clear (though often not usable as it comes out). What’s new for me is a much richer understanding of the myriad linguistic and rhetorical virtues in unplanned spoken language—virtues that most people can’t find when they are engaged in serious writing.

Two Worlds of Writing

There’s a newish world of writing where lots of people are busy all hours of the day and night emailing, tweeting, and blogging on the internet. Students startle their professors by sending chatty emails using the slang they write to buddies on Facebook. Much writing in this new world is a kind of “speaking onto the screen”; indeed, plenty of people, especially “literate people,” don’t consider this . . .

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