Is Email More Like Speech or More Like Writing?

Because my profession is writing about electronic mail, I frequently see people ask whether email is more like writing or more like speech. The answer, I think, is "no."

What people identify as "like speech" is informality; "like writing" is formality. However, this is not because of the medium. How precise a message has to be depends upon three things:


The less shared context you have with your correspondent, the more careful and precise you have to be about describing the situation.

I could write a note to my husband that would be very informal:

Hon -- gone to rocks, xoxoxo"
This message is perfectly understandable to my husband because he and I share an enormous amount of context. He knows that "Hon" means him, that "rocks" means "Jeff and Sue's rock carving studio", and that "xoxox" means "I love you."

However, if I were speaking to someone who did not speak American English very well, I would need to be very careful to not use slang or cultural references (like "xoxoxo").

Message Importance

However, when I went to the emergency room recently, I left a very long and detailed note for my husband. I didn't just write, "Hon -- gone to PAMF, xoxoxo", even though he knows that PAMF is the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. It was very important that he fully understand just exactly what was going on.

Similarly, if I gave a speech to Congress about something near and dear to my heart, I would be very formal and precise.

Clarifying Questions

Part of why I left a detailed message when I went to the emergency room is that I know that my cell phone does not work inside the PAMF building (while it does work at Jeff and Sue's rock carving studio.) My husband would not be able to reach me to ask clarifying questions. I had to be sure to write carefully and thoroughly enough that it would answer any questions he might have.

This is why speeches to large groups are almost always more formal than a one-on-one conversation.

(While advertisements tend to be informal, even though the audience can't respond, this is a gimmick. By being informal, they are emphasizing shared context. More shared context feels more intimate and hence more likeable and trustworthy.)

Characteristics of Speech and Writing

Writing is usually a monologue to an unknown audience about an important subject. Speech is usually a dialogue with a known audience about less-important subjects.

So the fact that writing is usually to be more formal than speech is because of the circumstances where they are usually used. It has nothing to do with whether the message is conveyed with sound waves or with letters written on paper.

Characteristics of Email

Thus when people use email in a dialogue, as in a negotiation with close colleagues, it will probably look "like speech." However, when people use email to broadcast messages to a large group that they haven't met before, it will probably look "like writing."

FYI, there is a very interesting paper by Heylighen and Dewaele that talks about formality. It is a highly scholarly paper for linguists, so it's a bit of a slog, but very interesting if you have the patience.

Kaitlin Duck Sherwood
Last updated 21 January 2002.