“Well, as we can see….”
“One thing leads to another and…..”
“Anyway, the point is…..”
“It’s like, you know….”
What’s a talking word?
In the course of my tutoring, I often find that I have to impress on students the importance of knowing how to write in an academic register. This means words, phrases, and constructions that they use in their everyday language won’t work in an academic paper. Many of the students I see will often use informal words and phrases in their papers (from the dreaded “like” to the grating “you know”). These are “talking words” and I advise students to avoid them.
Why is this a problem in writing? What changes? Why should we not encourage natural writing, a more conversational rhetoric? If students are more comfortable writing, they may derive more pleasure from it and, oh, I don’t know, do it outside of the last-minute rush a day before an assignment is due.
“It’s like, you know….”
“Talking words” are named such because we say them all the time in speech. There, in face to face conversations, we can overlook many “sins”. We have the luxuries of intonation, gesture, and posture to convey our meaning. This is where meaning started, for that matter. We spoke before we wrote, and when we first spoke, we spoke to each other. So there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the “talking” word or phrase, provided it stays in its proper environment.
The problem sets in when we change media. In a paper, those coy or instinctual usages are left without valuable context. They literally clog up the sentence. A student has to know what they are saying and how to do that in the most efficient manner possible. When a student writes a paper, they not only have page limits to observe, they also have to take into account the fact that there are multiple students and (usually) only one professor. While a student has to concern themselves with a single audience, the professor must divide their attention between multiple students, each with developed essays.
This means multiple voices competing for attention. Efficiency and formality are they students’ best bets to making sure their information comes across. Having “clogged”, clumsy sentences means the professor or other instructor cannot “read” you. We literally do not know what you are saying if you do not make your info a priority.
How to avoid this
The bare-bones method is simply telling a student. When I see words and phrases that are informal and speech-like, I cross them out, and immediately explain to the student why this is unworkable styling. But I am a professional, so I have the advantages of knowledge and experience.
For a student to learn to recognize these, I would suggest reading professional prose. Take individual sentences and analyze them. What is the point of the sample sentence? What is the main idea? Notice how fast this professional writer communicated what they needed to communicate. See how many synonyms and alternate phrases are being used. The only surefire way to learn style is to read widely and build up awareness of how language moves and operates in its written form.