The man who spoke with perfect sentences

Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.

It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.

The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by James Sutherland, reproduces from the 1955 Autobiographies an account by W. B. Yeats of his first meeting with Oscar Wilde, which he describes as “an astonishment”:

Oscar WildeI never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous. There was present that night at Henley’s, by right of propinquity or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dullness, who interrupted from time to time, and always to check or disorder thought; and I noticed with what mastery he was foiled and thrown. I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think all Wilde’s listeners have recorded came from the perfect rounding of the possible. That very impression helped him, as the effect of metre, or of the antithetical prose of the seventeenth century, which is itself a true metre, helped its writers, for he could pass without incongruity from some unforeseen, swift stroke of wit to elaborate reverie.

The types of speech we most admire would include those that were first prepared and polished in writing – or whose eloquence gives the impression of it – and also such outstanding wit that bespeaks an incisive mind.

Combine these qualities, and the effects, per Yeats’s report, are doubly impressive. Rare are they who can speak “with perfect sentences”, but it’s no surprise to see the description granted to Oscar Wilde.

(This is an elaboration on a short Tumblr post.)

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20 Responses to The man who spoke with perfect sentences

  1. It’s too bad we haven’t any recordings of Wilde’s speech. Merely reading transcriptions must greatly reduce the feel of wonder.

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    Such a mastery had he of speech, like Sharon says, it would have been such a gift to hear him.

    Having said that, recently I was thrown by a book which had such perfect speech patterns, uttered by the narrator, a 9 year old child. I didn’t finish it as the suspension of disbelief in the character was just far too much work and overrode my interest in the story’s theme – Tourette’s Syndrome.

  3. tdavis77 says:

    Such unbridled wit and the gift of live delivery to match can only belong to Wilde. As if we had any doubt…

  4. Claude says:

    The poor man….As always, when I think of Wilde. Perfection is such a lonely place to be in.

  5. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    “The secret spite of dullness”: what a marvelous turn of phrase! Yeats has always been one of my favorite modern poets.

    As a newspaper reporter, I read more thasn my share of court stenographers’ transcripts, and I have no illusions about the imperfections of our verbal communication.

    I fear that Wilde’s case is atypical; but then, isn’t that true of all genius?

  6. Barrie says:

    I’m sceptical. There’s no way of knowing whether Wilde’s speech on this one occasion, which sounds as if it was a rather formal one, was typical. Would he have sounded the same when there was no one around to notice? Similarly, it’s unlikely that Johnson always spoke in the way in which Boswell recorded him.

    Geoffrey Pullum, as you may have read, has recently outed Oscar as ‘an unenlightened and hypocritical prescriptivist’, here http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/10/22/be-fair-oscar/
    and here http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/11/05/was-it-really-oscar/

    • old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com says:

      a) Yeats notes that Wilde was constantly being interrupted. This makes perhaps for a more convincing display of consistently correct sentences than you allow.
      b) It looks difficult to be sure of the letter’s authorship, and at least one of the other candidates is much more convincing on the evidence you give: but even if it were indeed Wilde, I would be inclined to forgive him on this occasion for the sake of the rest of his writing.

      • Barrie says:

        And if it was Wilde, it shows that the best writers do not necessarily make the best linguists (and the opposite is probably also the case).

    • Ray Girvan says:

      @Barrie: “Similarly, it’s unlikely that Johnson always spoke in the way in which Boswell recorded him”.

      Quite. Other accounts variously described him as a rapid and articulate speaker, but that his speech was punctuated with a variety of verbal tics and puffings (which, along with physical mannerisms, have led to highly plausible theories that he suffered from Tourette syndrome). Memorable though Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal is (and not just in Blackadder), the idea of a pompous phlegmatic Johnson speaking largely in aphorisms beginning with “Why, sir ,,,” is a stereotype that seems well overdue for demolition.

  7. Roger says:

    I’ve heard people speak spontaneously in well-organized paragraphs, whether or not that sounds contradictory. But if perfect delivery persuades, go ahead and do it.

  8. Roger says:

    “Wow, man, are you ever into words” — one of the younger set to George Melly, as reported by him.

  9. Roger says:

    When Obama first came on the scene, 2008, his rhetorical ability provoked David Crystal, as he described it in his analysis of Obama’s “41-word if-clause opener”, which Crystal called a cliff-hanger. Crystal said he thought the opener was so long that Obama wouldn’t be able to pull it off (he, Crystal, was presumably counting the syllables as they fell from Obama’s lips). But Obama did pull it off, to DC’s amazement. The occasion was Obama’s acceptance speech, on camera, so it was formal, not spontaneous. But Obama shows much the same skill wherever he may talk, or so it seems to me.

  10. Barrie says:

    But we only every hear him when he’s speaking in public. We don’t hear him at the breakfast table.

    • Roger says:

      Obama’s apology regarding coercive health insurance includes a rush of 80+ words. In print in the online version, a dash near the end curbs it, just in time.

  11. Roger says:

    Sometimes when the mic’s open we hear him unawares. But even so he’s all around tops.

  12. Roger says:

    Re Oscar Wilde: his ad lib skills should be apparent from the first three days of his first trial, in which Wilde was plaintiff, not defendant,
    That was in 1895, when he fell from the pinnacle after his series of theatrical successes.
    His skills should be apparent, that is, because court reporting is that old. Wilde wouldn’t have had much chance to prepare his answers since he was under cross-examination by a very determined lawyer.
    His adversary was Edward Carson. Carson’s style was antithetical to Wilde’s. Carson bore in with very direct and simple questions,
    such as What was Wilde’s age? — and catching him out immediately in a fudged answer, since Carson and Wilde were exact contemporaries, and Carson knew it. Oscar generally replied with wonderful wit. But those witty ripostes demanded a level of energy from Wilde that he had to maintain across the days, and couldn’t.
    Carson, by contrast, just had to keep boring in with his low-energy direct questions. By the afternoon of the third day, Wilde’s well was dry. Still, who else could have kept it up that long? Too bad that Carson won; literature lost. Wilde died a few years later, his health broken in Reading Gaol.

  13. Stan says:

    Sharon: Yes, that’s true. It is a pity.

    WWW: Always a danger. I once heard it described as Dawson’s Creek Syndrome because apparently that show was full of teenagers talking like thirty-somethings.

    tdavis: He was one of a kind.

    Claude: Perhaps. It’s no consolation, but his grave in Père Lachaise is covered in flowers and kisses, or at least it was when I visited.

    Marc: I admired that phrase too: such economy of expression. Court transcripts are an apt example; for one thing, they’re a form of transcribed speech the public is likely to be familiar with.

    Barrie: Presumably it wasn’t typical. If my post (or its title) suggested otherwise, that’s my fault. I don’t imagine Wilde spoke “with perfect sentences” all the time, or even normally, but he was uncommonly articulate and quick off the mark, and Yeats’s account – which I’ve no reason to think isn’t accurate – makes for a good anecdote. (Thanks for the links: yes, I’d seen them, but other readers might not have.)

    Roger: Obama is unusually well-spoken for a politician, and has an undoubted flair for rhetorical delivery, but I don’t think he writes his own speeches. Thanks for the insights into Wilde’s court case – a truly sad affair.

  14. dw says:

    Monty Python has busted Oscar Wilde’s secret.

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