What Is Written English?

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Written English is the way in which the English language is transmitted through a conventional system of graphic signs (or letters). Compare to spoken English.

The earliest forms of written English were primarily the translations of Latin works into English in the ninth century. Not until the late fourteenth century (that is, the late Middle English period) did a standard form of written English begin to emerge. According to Marilyn Corrie in The Oxford History of English (2006), written English has been characterized by "relative stability" during the Modern English period.

Early Written English

  • "[T]he vast majority of books and manuscripts produced in England before the invention of printing were written in Latin or (in later times) French. Administrative documents were not written in English in any number until the fourteenth century. The story of early written English is one of a local vernacular language struggling to achieve a distinct visual identity and written usage."
    (David Graddol et al., English: History, Diversity, and Change. Routledge, 1996)
    "[A] new standard form of written English, this time based on the usage of London, began to emerge from the fifteenth century onwards. This was generally adopted by the early printers, who in turn provided a norm for private usage from the sixteenth century onwards."
    (Jeremy J. Smith, Essentials of Early English. Routledge, 1999)

Recording Functions of Written English

  • "The history of writing in the English-speaking world reveals a balancing act between competing recording functions of the written word. While written English has always had a role in creating durable records that were never intended to be read aloud, the 'oral' side of writing has been far more important than we tend to realize. Through most of the language's history, an essential function of writing has been to aid in subsequent representation of spoken words. Overwhelmingly, those spoken words have been formal in character--drama, poetry, sermons, public speeches. ( . . . [B]eginning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, writing developed a new set of quintessentially written functions with the emergence of newspapers and novels.)
    "In the latter part of the twentieth century, a new twist was added, as writing increasingly came to represent informal speech. This time, there was no intention of later rendering such texts aloud. Gradually, we learned to write as we spoke (rather than preparing to speak as we wrote). As a result we've generally blurred older assumptions that speech and writing are two distinct forms of communication. Nowhere has this muddying of boundaries been more apparent than in the case of email."
    (Naomi S. Baron, Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading. Routledge, 2000)

Writing and Speech

  • "When writing developed, it was derived from and represented speech, albeit imperfectly . . ..
    "To affirm the primacy of speech over writing is not, however, to disparage the latter. If speaking makes us human, writing makes us civilized. Writing has some advantages over speech. For example, it is more permanent, thus making possible the records that any civilization must have. Writing is also capable of easily making some distinctions that speech can make only with difficulty. We can, for example, indicate certain types of pauses more clearly by the spaces that we leave between words when we write than we ordinarily are able to do when we speak. Grade A may well be heard as gray day, but there is no mistaking the one phrase for the other in writing."
    (John Algeo and Thomas Pyles, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2005)

Standard Written English

  • "Standard or standardized written English (SWE). It's alive and well in our culture, but what does it mean? Many varieties of English get into print in various contexts, but 'standard' doesn't refer to all of them--not even to everything published in mainstream books and magazines. It refers only to one slice of mainstream writing--but an incredibly important and powerful slice: the slice that people happen to call 'correct edited written English.' When people champion Standard Written English, they sometimes call it 'proper' or 'correct' or 'literate' writing. . . . [I]t's a language that is found only on paper--and only in the texts of certain 'established writers,' and its rules are in grammar books. So again: standardized written English (or prescriptive written English) is no one's mother tongue."
    (Peter Elbow, Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford Univ. Press, 2012)
    "Unlike most other kinds of English, standard written English is strongly codified. That is, there is almost total agreement as to which forms and usages form part of it and which do not. . . .
    "Mastery of standard written English is a requirement for many professions, and it is highly desirable in many others. But nobody comes naturally equipped with this mastery. Standard written English has to be acquired, usually by formal education. Sadly, however, in recent years schools in most English-speaking countries have pulled back from teaching this material. As a result, even university graduates with good degrees often find themselves with a command of standard English that is at best inadequate and at worst distressing. This is not a trivial problem, since a poor command of the conventions of standard English will often make a very bad impression on those who must read your writing."
    (Robert Lawrence Trask, Say What You Mean!: A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style and Usage. David R. Godine, 2005)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Written English?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/written-english-1692517. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is Written English? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/written-english-1692517 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Written English?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/written-english-1692517 (accessed March 29, 2023).