Friday, March 2, 2012

Words, Words, Words about Spelling

Yesterday, I listened to a debate on spelling standards on NPR. One debater argued that language is an evolving thing and texting-based spellings are an inevitable evolutionary next step. The other debater argued that the standards make communication easier and preserve the language's history and beauty.

I love that the debate was extremely respectful, polite, and civilized (unlike, say, political debates or anything involving Rush Limbaugh). The two participants were not terribly far apart in their positions, and while both are passionate about spelling, both realize that it's nothing to get all hot and bothered about.

I fell in love with them both.

Not romantic love, of course. That would be weird. Just geeky intellectual love dressed in a tweed jacket and meeting in a college library to share a passion for the nuance and intertextuality of library graffiti. That kind of love.

The pro-texting woman absolutely concedes that standards are necessary but should evolve with the language, and the standards man absolutely concedes that languages do evolve and standards do, too. Both are perfectly reasonable. The main difference in their positions appears to be that one embraces change and hopes to speed it along, and the other resists change that happens too quickly.

I'm a standards gal who appreciates how the English language has evolved and who knows dictionaries are a comparatively recent invention. For instance, the great William Shakespeare rarely spelled his name the same way twice, but I became extremely offended when my paternal grandmother misspelled my name on a birthday card.

The spelling generated by texting sacrifices beauty and clarity for speed, but now that I've started texting, I appreciate the need for speed in that medium. I still, however, can't bring myself to type b4 or 2. (And on a side note, please don't text me if you don't have mobile plan doesn't include unlimited texting.)

Let's see what a few others have to say on the subject.

"When our spelling is perfect, it's invisible. But when it's flawed, it prompts strong negative associations." Marilyn vos Savant

"A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of." Burt Bacharach

"The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him. German and Spanish are accessible to foreigners: English is not accessible even to Englishmen." George Bernard Shaw (an Irishman)

"Every English poet should master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them." Robert Graves

“If you can spell 'Nietzsche' without Google, you deserve a cookie.” Lauren Leto

What are your thoughts about spelling?


  1. Ah, a topic close to my heart! I have to admit that I'm with Marilyn and the first quote. To me, good spelling shows self discipline and high standards. The worst ones for me are you're and your and to, two and too. But I have been known to use texting language, too! (and as cosmic revenge, I'm married to and have given birth to 2 non-spellers)! LOL!

  2. How do you misspell 'Susan'?

    I admit, spelling errors bug me. I want to get out a red pencil and circle them. In this day of auto spell check, there are no excuses.
    Now texting spelling is different, rather than see it as a spelling issue I see it as a shorthand thing. But I don't think it should cross over into written work, ever. Hundreds of years of authors plucking away with quill pens or on manual typewriters without spell check (if ever there was a good excuse for lax spelling!)...wiped out by 2 seconds of thumb typing on a cell phone? I have trouble reading facebook posts in text lingo, so I don't think I could read a book written in it. It just seems so lazy to me.

    That said, I do agree that words evolve with the times. Some historically correctly spelled words (such as 'learnt') just seem wrong to me now. 'Hooked on Phonics' anyone?

  3. I am an absolutely horrible speller. My mom attributes it to the fact that I switched school systems during that critical learning stage. All I know is that is my best friend!

    I admit that I know the difference between those annoying goofs (you're/your, their/there/they're, too/two/to) but I always have to stop and think about it to make sure I've used the correct one. It is when I'm in a hurry that I write/type the incorrect version. The then/than one usually involves smoke while I think it through.

    On the topic of spelling in texts - I don't like it! I do use lol and smilies, but usually just to add "tone" to my written posts.

    I read - a ton (a lot even) - or voraciously (which I had to look up the spelling, but I know the meaning) - and so have a (what I think is) better-than-average vocabulary (most of which I can't spell) - and I use dashes, ellipsis, and parentheses way too much.

    I love reading/following grammar blogs and have purchased way too many books on the subject. It just doesn't take.

    I try to be forgiving of spelling/grammar problems only because I know my own problems are not intentional nor do I think they will ever get better. I hope that I have other attributes that I'm good (or even great) at to offset my horrendous spelling/grammar.

    And though I've re-read this post 3 times, I'm sure there is something wrong with it!

    Sorry for the book - I guess this is nearer to my heart than I thought :)

  4. I think proper spelling is important. Your post made me think of the movie Idiocracy. It is vulgar and has a lot of profanity but it makes you think about the future. In the movie people can no longer read and you just push buttons next to pictures to order fast food. You can buy a law degree at Costco. Is this where we are headed if we keep "dumbing down" America?

  5. Spelling errors jump out at me instantly! I realise others might not care as much, but I have a hard time not pointing out errors when I see them.
    German is so much easier when it comes to spelling, the same sounds are always spelled the same. There are no guessing games. When I started learning English, we took lots of spelling tests. Since there are so many exceptions to the rules, we just had to memorize everything.
    As far as texting goes, I have come to like it. It has made life easier when communicating with my teenager. It takes me forever to text, I am slow at it, partially because I refuse to use numbers instead of words (like you).


  6. Having my boy enter kindergarten has opened up a whole new world to me. When I was little there was no such thing as "Hooked on Phonics" - and having to help him (and I volunteer in his class) and the other kids with it is so very difficult for me. How can we teach our children phonetic spelling when English is rife with different rules/exceptions that seem to have no rhyme or reason?
    English is such a hodge podge of other languages that it could never be truly regulated. How can we write our own rules for a foreign word?
    Not that I think spelling should suffer - it is a serious pet peeve of mine that so few people seem to be able to spell. Craft blogs seem to have an unusually high incidence of confusion with peek/peak/pique (which makes me see RED every single time).
    And texting is something that I refuse to do. Partially because I'm terribly slow at it, due to the fact that I refuse to use numbers or bizarre combinations of letters, and partially because it seems so very impersonal.
    Apparently you touched a great big sore spot for many of us! ;) Although, I must admit, I do find it funny when someone fails so badly at spelling something that I can't decipher it at all. (My favorite being when a cousin of mine sent me an email detailing her "torcher" at work. Go ahead, read it out loud. I had to! XD )

  7. I am in the "preserve standards" camp, but I hope I am civil about it. The main thing that bothers me is using numbers in place of words in texting, because "4" means something different from "for." It is just jarring to my brain to see "b4" or "4 sale."

  8. Whenever I start discussing spelling and grammar, I become convinced that I am about to make a big error, LOL!

    I like standards. At work, when I read job applications, sometimes I cannot understand what the job applicant is trying to convey, at all. Their spelling and grammar is so bad that meaning is totally lost. That applicant does not get an interview. Neither does the 19 year old who writes in dot-pointed text-speak - one applicant used five dot points of two or three words each when provided a 300 word limit to explain what he could offer.

    I text. I don't take many shortcuts. I find gr8, cu l8r, u, 2, and b4, among others, highly irritating. I find it doubly irritating when these make their way into emails and other, non-texting, communication.

    In the past, I have been known to advise restaurant owners and chefs when there are misspellings on the menu, or in the signage. These days I try to grit my teeth and ignore it, LOL.

    Oh dear, I think a nerve has been touched, I'm on my soapbox! As you can tell, I'm with Marilyn and Robert! :-)

  9. Ooooh *rubs hands together*

    I understand the need/desire to use abbreviations like b4 and U in texts or on Twitter. I get that. What I don't get are people who use those abbreviations in a business email. I'm sorry, they just don't belong there.

    And I would NEVER use those abbreviations when communicating with someone older, like my Dad. Knowing your audience is a key factor in communication.

    So use the abbreviations within the context in which they are important. For all else, please spell out the words.


  10. wow, Susan, you have a great topic here! I can't take a stand on spelling because I'm still stuck on cursive writing. My youngest are 18 and 19 y/o and they fell out of cursive and into texting long ago. My 18 y/o needed his SS card for a job app and I said, Look honey, you knew cursive! when he saw his signature on the card. What a generation statement, eh?


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!