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”:
I 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.)
Update: Philip Marchand’s biography Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger describes McLuhan as being able to “speak extemporaneously in perfectly fluid, coherent, and grammatical sentences”.