Archive: August 19th, 2008

Do We Need New Spelling?

20080825_107.jpgThere is an article in the current issue of Time Magazine that talks about spelling reform, and discusses the proposal that we offer official, variantions for spellings of some of the most commonly-misspelled words.

The senior lecturer in criminology at Bucks New University in Buckinghamshire, England sees so many misspellings in papers submitted by first-year students that he says we’d be better off letting the perpetrators off the hook and doing away with certain spelling rules altogether. Good spellers, Smith says, should be able to go on writing as usual; those who find the current rules of English too hard to learn should have their spelling labeled variant, not wrong.

The rationale seems to be that since there are so many words that are frequently misspelled, we should just accept the fact that people usually forget the “r” in “February” and move on–allowing teachers to save their valuable time for more important things that correcting spelling.

The article goes on to say:

Word nerds aren’t the only ones with a stake in the proposal. People who have trouble with spelling are punished when it comes to applying for jobs or even filling out forms, even though their mistakes are far from unusual.

Now, our next-door neighbor is an elementary school principal and was saying just last night that she’s been reviewing resumes for some teaching positions, and that the applicants are using “Texting” abbreviations on their resumes. These are people applying for teaching positions! Would you want someone who considers “text” jargon to be acceptable on a resume to teach your children to read? I know I wouldn’t.

This is not because I’m am stuck in the past and still believe the paper book is one of the best inventions under the sun (right along with the Internet, thank you very much). I’m willing to accept that teenagers text each other all the time, and that abbreviations are key, and that a certain amount of that may well flow over into more traditional kinds of communication. But there’s a difference between using creative spelling in a letter or an email, and using it on a formal resume.

And there’s a huge difference between misspelling “definite” because it’s confusing, and misspelling it because you just don’t care.

But some language purists insist that there is value to the top-down rules of English. “People who spell a lot of words incorrectly either aren’t paying attention or don’t care,” says Barbara Wallraff, who writes the Wordcourt column on language and writing problems for the Atlantic and King Features Syndicate. “Why are we changing our language to accommodate — with two m’s — them?”

This is pretty much the way I feel. To me, this is the “Lowest-Common Denominator” kind of decision making. It’s pandering. We don’t want to make spelling too hard for everyone, so let’s just drop the standards so everyone can do it. But this is like raising the speed limit because every one speeds when they drive; or lowering the legal drinking age because, well, everyone knows teenagers sneak a drink now and again. Instead of trying to achieve a certain standard, we’re just giving up. It just lowers the bar for everybody.

Does that mean that I am henceforth dedicating my life to keeping the “r” in February? No. Language evolves, and that includes spelling. Even Ken Smith, quoted in the Time article, isn’t looking for sweeping reform. “I’m just saying, let’s have a few more variant spellings.” Personally, I’m not opposed to updating spelling parameters, and hey, there are words I get confused on, too. (I only just finally “got” Separate-with-an-A by reminding myself that it’s describing something separate, like it was pared away like apple peel. And yes, I know that has nothing to do with it, but darn it, pare is spelled with an “a” just like the middle of “separate” and it’s working for me.)

It worries me that so many people–especially the ones who are educating the children of the world–are giving in to the “If you can’t beat it, join it” mentality of simply accepting that kids don’t want to learn to spell, and would rather change the rules than try to teach differently.

What do you think? Do you think that teaching spelling is a losing battle? Do you think it’s one that we should try to win anyway? Or just hoist the white flag up the flagpole now and take a long lunch?