Fluency in Language

Syntactic fluency
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In composition, fluency is a general term for the clear, smooth, and seemingly effortless use of language in writing or speech. Contrast this with dysfluency.

Syntactic fluency (also known as syntactic maturity or syntactic complexity) refers to the ability to manipulate a variety of sentence structures effectively.

Etymology: From the Latin, "flowing"


In Rhetoric and Composition: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2010), Steven Lynn presents "some illustrative activities that research or direct experience or compelling anecdotal evidence indicates can help students to improve their stylistic fluency and general writing ability." These activities include the following:

- Write often, and write all sorts of different kinds of things for different audiences.
- Read, read, read.
- Nurture students' awareness of the effects of stylistic choices.
- Explore various approaches to characterizing style.
- Try Sentence Combining and Erasmus's copiousness.
- Imitation--it's not just for sincere flattery.
- Practice revision strategies, creating tighter, brighter, and sharper prose.

Types of Fluency

"Syntactic fluency is the ease with which speakers construct complex sentences containing linguistically complex structures. Pragmatic fluency refers to both knowing and demonstrating what one wants to say within and in response to a variety of situational constraints. Phonologic fluency refers to the ease of producing long and complex strings of sounds within meaningful and complex language units."

(David Allen Shapiro, Stuttering Intervention. Pro-Ed, 1999)

Beyond the Basics

"By providing nonthreatening but challenging writing experiences for [students], we are enabling them to develop confidence in the writing abilities they already have as they demonstrate--for self as well as teacher--the syntactic fluency they have been developing through a lifetime of using and listening to their native tongue.

Very few if any of them could explain that they are putting words together in the patterns that create meaning; and as they fill the empty pages, they would be unable to name the kinds of verbal constructs they're using to express their thoughts. But they are indeed demonstrating that they have already mastered the basic grammatical structures they need for writing.

And the writing we're asking them to do is enabling them to develop more fluency."

(Lou Kelly, "One-on-One, Iowa City Style: Fifty Years of Individualized Writing Instruction." Landmark Essays on Writing Centers, ed. by Christina Murphy and Joe Law. Hermagoras Press, 1995)​

Measuring Syntactic Fluency

"[W]e might reasonably infer that good writers, expert writers, mature writers have mastered the syntax of their language and have at their disposal a large repertoire of syntactic forms, especially those forms we associate with longer clauses, which we can recognize simply by their length, or denser sentences, which we can measure using the T-unit, an independent clause and all related subordination. However, the question that immediately comes to mind is this: Are longer and denser sentences always better, more mature? Can we necessarily infer that a writer who uses longer or more complex syntax in any given case is a better or more mature writer than one who does not? There is good reason to think that this inference maybe misguided...

"[A]lthough syntactic fluency may be a necessary part of what we mean by writing ability, it cannot be the only or even the most important part of that ability.

Expert writers may have an excellent grasp of the language, but they still need to know what they are talking about, and they must still need to know how to apply what they know in any given case. Although expert writers may be syntactically fluent, they must be able to apply that fluency using different genres in different situations: different genres and different situations, even different purposes, call for different kinds of language. The test of writers' syntactic fluency can be only whether they adapt their repertoire of structures and techniques to the demands of a particular purpose in a particular context. This means that although syntactic fluency may very well be a general skill that all expert writers share, the only way we can actually know the degree to which a given writer has that ability is to ask that writer to perform in different genres in a variety of circumstances."

(David W Smit, The End of Composition Studies. Southern Illinois University Press, 2004)

Further Reading