While speaking and writing are forms of communication among people, they also differ in their intrinsic nature. This means that the way we teach or learn speaking and writing a language (whether it is the mother tongue or a newly-acquired foreign language) will have also to take into consideration these factors.

What are the differences between speaking and writing?

1. Grammar

For most written communications, people are generally more careful in observing the grammatical rules. However, for oral communication, given that most of the time, both parties share a similar contextual understanding, grammatical rules are less strictly observed.  For example, contractions or incomplete sentences are more commonly used in oral communication.

"I don't know what to do then."

"You passed?"

The first sentence is grammatically incorrect, while the second one assumes that the listener shares the similar context with the questioner. In written communication, the former requires grammatical correction, while the latter more elaboration.

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2. Logical flow

In written discourse, the author generally makes the effort to ensure that the sentences flow in logical sequence and plan his flow of thoughts in an organised manner for the reader's easy comprehension. On the other hand, given the informal nature of most conversations, it is not unusual to find pauses, hesitations and corrections peppered in oral discourse. Fillers and silent pauses are used as people need to think or plan what they want to say next before actually articulating it.

3. Planning of content

In written discourse, it is usually the author himself who plans and organises the general flow of the content. He alone will decide how the topic will unfold and adjusts accordingly to new information or events. As for speaking, it usually takes on a more spontaneous trait, thus appears not as organised as written materials. 

4. Basic unit

The basic unit of written materials is the sentence, followed by the paragraph. This is to facilitate the reader's comprehension of the text, of which the main ideas are summed up at appropriate points. On the other hand, spoken language is delivered one clause at a time. Moreover, it is common to find in a conversation several clauses linked together by conjunctions such as "and" and "but". In short, people do not generally use full sentences when talking to one another, though speech-making is an exception.

5. Body language

Most spoken discourses are dialogic in nature, which means that it is conducted between two or more people. This results in its fragmented nature, which also makes it difficult to predict its outcome as both speaker and listener constantly interact with one another to clarify details, change topic or agree/disagree. Given the interactive nature of conversations, the communication between the speaker and listener has to include the spoken messages, speaking tone and non-verbal signals, as these are the key elements which form a shared contextual understanding between the two. This allows many things to be left unsaid as both assume that the other side will understand the context of the conversation.

Unlike oral communication, the language used in written discourse is more predictable with more commonly identifiable generic structures. On the other hand, there are no body language or cues for the recipient to infer from. Any implied messages or intentions would have to be carefully worked in the nuances in the written language, the tone used or the way the text is organised. This is why written messages are more carefully planned and written to avoid any misunderstanding and unintended ambiguity.

6. Ease of reference

For written discourse, the reader can always easily refer to the text at any point to clarify his thoughts or to fully take in the message. On the other hand, the listener does not have that luxury. He has to take in what was being said and process it quickly in order to produce an appropriate response to sustain the conversation. 

Speaking vs writing
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When we really look around us, we can find an amazing variety of spoken and written discourse, which we often take for granted. If we reside in a society where the mother tongue is commonly used, the way we use the language comes very naturally, since we have grown up with it. Alternatively, if we live in a place where a foreign language prevails, learning and getting used to these varied discourse will be part of the naturalisation process.

Types of written discourse


1. Telephone directories, dictionaries

2. Instruction booklets, warning signs, directions, notices, menus


1. Travel brochures, advertisements, shopping catalogues

2. Guidebooks, cookbooks, handbooks, recipes

3. Statistics, flow charts, time tables, diagrams

4. Letters, postcards, telegrams, notes

5. Newspapers, magazines, weather reports


1. Novels, short stories, essays

2. Plays

3. Poems

Spoken discourse

1. Spontaneous free speech - e.g. interactive conversations where the speaker adopts a casual tone with the listener, with the discourse peppered with fragmented syntax and grammatical errors. This could include informal group discussions, brainstorming sessions, giving instructions or directions to people (though that could also require some deliberation depending on the context).

2. Deliberate free speech - e.g. interviews, formal discussions and debates where the speaker is more careful about what he says, and plans and organises his own thoughts before articulating them.

3. Oral presentation of a written text - e.g. newscasts, formal presentations and lectures where the speaker adopts an appropriate tone and pauses, as well as make the necessary adjustments when reading from a written text.

4. Oral presentation of a fixed script - e.g. acting on stage or in film when the spoken text is more or less determined, with the actor conveying both verbal and non-verbal cues to the audience.

Given the above, in order to ensure that the recipient (whether it is the reader or listener) can fully understand one's message, the onus is on the originator (writer or speaker) to organise his discourse in such a way that the recipient can fully comprehend his message. This means that the recipient can either understand the gist of the message or easily extract parts of it for future reference.