Craftsmanship - Virginia Woolf


…Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid word "incarnadine," for example – who can use that without remembering "multitudinous seas"? In the old days, of course, when English was a new language, writers could invent new words and use them. Nowadays it is easy enough to invent new words – they spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight or feel a new sensation – but we cannot use them because the English language is old. You cannot use a brand new word in an old language because of the very obvious yet always mysterious fact that a word is not a single and separate entity, but part of other words. Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other, although, of course, only a great poet knows that the word "incarnadine" belongs to "multitudinous seas." To combine new words with old words is fatal to the constitution of the sentence. In order to use new words properly you would have to invent a whole new language; and that, though no doubt we shall come to it, is not at the moment our business. Our business is to see what we can do with the old English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question.

And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer. Think what it would mean if you could teach, or if you could learn the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper you'd pick up, would tell the truth, or create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For though at this moment at least a hundred professors are lecturing on the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing the literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English literature with the utmost credit, still – do we write better, do we read better than we read and wrote four hundred years ago when we were un-lectured, un-criticized, untaught? Is our modern Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan? Well, where then are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors; not on our reviewers; not on our writers; but on words. It is words that are to blame. They are the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most un-teachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion when we most need words we find none. Yet there is the dictionary; there at our disposal are some half-a-million words all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No, because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind. Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra; poems lovelier than the Ode to a Nightingale; novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bunglings of amateurs. It is only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. But we cannot do it because they do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind. And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, and mating together. It is true that they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed, the less we enquire into the past of our dear Mother English the better it will be for that lady's reputation. For she has gone a-roving, a-roving fair maid.

Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling is all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of that deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live – the mind – all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think before they use them, and to feel before they use them, but to think and feel not about them, but about something different. They are highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a Society for Pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English – hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech; it is a protest against the puritans. They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another; uneducated words are as good as educated words, uncultivated words as good as cultivated words, there are no ranks or titles in their society. Nor do they like being lifted out on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together, in sentences, paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.

Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being many-sided, flashing first this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person; they are unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity, this power to mean different things to different people, that they survive. Perhaps then one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse to allow words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination…


  1. Wow, this is truly amazing, I saw this one youtube, and do you think you can send me the audio file of this? I would highly appreciate it. My email is
    Thank you.

  2. I've put it in facebook, if you don't mind.

    Thank's for your answer (from youtube)

  3. I love this, hearing my good old favorite author. I have been with her for five years and she never fail to impress me, her diction is perfect as it is.

  4. extraordinary! thank you so much!

    i'm going to share it in my blog, including your transcription, if you don't mind.


  5. Thank you very much for the transcript and the yt video with the wonderful recording of Virginia's voice... and the beautiful images!
    For a moment she is somehow alive again... The beloved never die, as long we carry them in our hearts and thoughts...
    Virgina will always live on with her word in her book...

  6. Very grateful for the transcript. It was a pure joy reading it along silently in my head as she speaks.

    Thank you!

  7. Thanks a lot for the transcript and of course for youtube video.

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  8. Thank you so much! What an listen Virginia's precious words by her own voice!

  9. Muchas Gracias.
    I send you a flower
    Here the beginning of Mrs Dalloway in spanish.
    "Mrs Dalloway dijo que las flores las compraría ella"

  10. Gracias!
    La Señora Dalloway:
    "¿Acaso importa que deje de existir? se preguntaba ella mientras caminaba por la calle Bond. QUizá todo esto debía proseguir sin ella. ¿le dolía, o quizá no resultaba un consuelo creer que la muerte es el fin absoluto?"

  11. Bueno, pues nunca había oído su emocionante, porque ya empezaba a dudar. Quien no tiene voz, no existe. Y si no la alza, existe poco.
    Un bico


  12. without righness a word dies
    without truth it withers
    without love it is a clanging cymbal
    ~~~Many thanks for this

  13. Thank you so much for the transcript! So helpful! :)

  14. Merci. If I knew how to, I would put it in my blog or Facebook.

  15. Impart you so often! What an pore Virginia's treasured words by her own vocalize.transcript So laboursaving
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  16. Thanks so much for putting this out there -- before this, I'd only ever heard a 9 second snippet that seemed to be the only recording of her voice out there. This is great. Thanks for transcribing, also!

  17. virginia, your words are real beauty.
    stunning thoughts, great mind.

  18. And words become an not none word or a new one and never stop to live.Is most stupid to speak for the word,words something that all have in his mind and on his mouth all the time,but to say something for the meaninig of the word that is something else ,not a simple meaning but so kind of an spoken for evryone language,Than the word will came with a victory and will win over the sentance,becoming a king of the human existing.Alone or with something else,the word apears as the most important thing for a long time,for that thinking as something great and important,we must gave him a reason for existing.Simple, a simpe letter is still a word,word how think of a life.As i say word is better when is artistic oc intelectual,but is used in all kind.
    The importance of word once say is something that is not valuble,even writen one but still have the power over all.Streinght in the word write on an ancient stone or in a poem,is still the same think,gramma word,only the mind word can take a victory,from how even the first one will teach.
    Word something that is made for peoples to live.-Kosta Klfov
    Inspirate from the speach


  19. Thank you. I just wanted to know where to ship it since I know now to keep producing it


  20. Fascinating, indeed! Thanks, for sharing.

  21. How wonderful to hear Woolf discuss our Dear Mother English. A delightfully inspiring piece of treasure, indeed.

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  23. This is absolutely exquisite. The recording is a jewel (to hear Virginia Woolf's voice!) and as I was transcribing what she said I realised you had done the work already — thank you!

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  25. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. Applying correct word at the correct situation is very necessary. To get a hand over vocabulary get in touch with

  26. Thanks a lot a lot for that transcript along with the yt video clip using the amazing saving involving Virginia's tone of voice... along with the wonderful graphics! Cours De Français Montréal


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  31. It is beautiful. I heard the audio clip somewhere before can't remember.



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