Does Spelling Count?

Many of us consider ourselves to be “technologists”. “English” may not be second language to us, but it definitely wasn’t highest on our “favorite subjects list” in college. Thank the application gods for Spell Checkers (with Autocorrect) which now show up in every conceivable application or platform. Yea verily, brothers & sisters, we, who have struggled with i_before_e_except_after_c since third grade, are now SAVED!! (… or at least it seems so.)

Our computers now do all the thinking while we just slam the words down. Right? Maybe someday, but not yet. Today we still have to do some level of thinking when writing. But is that “someday” closer than we think?

For the February issue of Wired Magazine, Anne Trubeck, an associate professor at Oberlin College, wrote an opinion piece, “Proper Spelling? Its Tyme to Let Luce!”. In her article, she wrote, “Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling.” She went on to say that “Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules.”

This article lit up the blogs and newspapers with editors proclaiming that the Oberlin College professor’s comments were just short of heresy. Even a copy editor from Wired magazine, itself, responded, “Personally, I like to be able to understand what I read, without having to stop and puzzle over “creative” spellings—whether it’s in a book, on a tablet, or online. What exactly is it about digital media that demands the abolition of spelling rules?”

It is true, as Trubeck points out, that English spelling is “a terrible mess” and that there were few sources for “proper spelling” prior to the 1800s. In her article, she reminds us,

In 1768, Benjamin Franklin published “A Scheme for a New Alphabet and Reformed Mode of Spelling,” a treatise that laid out a detailed plan for making spelling sensible. He invented three new vowels and removed c, j, q, w, x, and y from our alphabet. Noah Webster (of Webster’s Dictionary) agreed with many of Franklin’s suggestions and came up with more of his own, some of which were accepted: Webster is why the American spelling of color has no u. Mark Twain placed the blame for spelling errors on “this present silly alphabet, which I fancy was invented by a drunken thief,” and proposed a “sane, determinate” alternative with “a system of accents, giving to each vowel its own soul and value.”

While I do agree that English, or perhaps more pointedly, “American”, spelling can be a challenge, discarding the rules of our written word for the sole purpose of the writer’s convenience is more than one step beyond the point of reason. Writing for oneself is one thing, but writing as a form of communication to others is entirely another.

As the Wired copy editor writes, “So if you want to chat in leetspeak [where a user replaces letters for numbers or other characters] or use cutesy abbreviations in your texts, go crazy. You’re talking to your own tribe; they know the code, and they’re willing to indulge your affectations. And let’s be honest: A lot of that intentional misspelling, like the argot of any subculture, is meant to exclude outsiders—such as nosy parents. It’s a badge of membership in your little clique.”

Precise use of language or simply of spelling is designed to avoid confusion in communication. Precise language is not for the writer’s convenience, but for the readers’ understanding. In the normal course of our jobs, most of us are required to drift outside those sacred halls of technology and into the cold, unforgiving world of the written word. With the first misunderstood business email, we are faced with the reality that communication has two components: what we meant (delivery) and what was understood (comprehension). Without enabling that comprehension component with proper spelling/use, our words may as well be random characters on the screen.

Even if the misspelled words are understood, what do their incorrect configurations say about how much the writer valued the words selected or what was conveyed? Do the misspellings/misuses indicate that the writer really doesn’t care enough about the reader to get the words right?

Professor Trubek seems to think that “There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules.” I disagree with her. If there is no additional reason for spelling rules, other than respect of the reader, then THAT is enough for me. Get out the dictionary and find the correct spelling of the word!

We remind ourselves to re-read our emails before sending them and still, mistakes do slip in. Our computers are not foolproof. Their spell checkers and grammar checkers are programmed to support common use, but what happens when we are looking for the fine detail of a proper spelling or word use? Should we reduce the flexibility and color of our language just to satisfy the indolent nature of some writers?

Read through the blog postings listed below. Do you agree the “thru” could be a reasonable alternative to “through”? But does “l8r” really add to the value or efficiency of communication? How does this “new spelling” initiative impact legal contracts, where clear and precise meanings are essential.


Proper Spelling? Its Tyme to Let Luce!

By Anne Trubek, January 31, 2012 |  12:30 pm |  Wired February 2012

Spelling: A Rebuttal From Wired’s Copydesk

By Lee Simmons Email Author January 31, 2012 |  12:30 pm |  Wired February 2012

Should We Abandon Standard Spelling?

Podcast Episode 308: February 9, 2012 by Mignon Fogarty

A spell of rough weather

The Baltimore Sun  > You Don’t Say, by John McIntyre, editor


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