Punctuality Rules!

Do We Need New Spelling?

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?

21 thoughts on “Do We Need New Spelling?

  1. Gillian

    I’m not hoisting the white flag, but I no longer teach and have no children to worry about. My argument, and it works for second language too, is that it is easier to go downhill to slang, jargon and abbreviations, than it is to go uphill to more precise language, particular spelling and grammar. Therefore start at the top.

  2. --Deb Post author

    I don’t teach either, and there’s no question that teachers have a HUGE amount on their educational plates these days, but there’s no reason not to do what they can excellently. (Or something like that.)

  3. Sue

    I am so with you. Misspellings, especially misspellings where someone really should know better (or at least proofread their writing) annoys me no end.

    But you know what? Ever since you did that post several months ago about “What word do you always misspell?” I haven’t gotten my former nemesis, “receive,” wrong once!

  4. --Deb Post author

    I can deal with typos (well, one or two) because mistakes happen, but the people who are simply too lazy to bother to spell correctly? I just want to shake them (grin).

    And, Sue, how very cool is that! I wonder how we managed that…

  5. Ulla Hennig

    I live in Germany, and this is definitely an international educational disaster! We’ve got the same problem here, and I am angry about the sloppiness of many people regarding spelling. It seems that many people just don’t seem to care anymore. But the fact is, that the head of human resource does, and applications having spelling mistakes in them are straight away thrown into the paper bin.

    Ulla Hennig’s last blog post..Seagulls fighting

  6. --Deb Post author

    Somehow, I don’t know if it makes me feel better or worse to know this problem isn’t just for English-speakers. One the one hand, it means we’re not alone, but on the other hand, the problem is worse than I feared!

  7. Melissa Donovan

    The state of spelling is atrocious. In fact, I find that spelling and grammar is so bad, I really notice when a person can craft technically correct sentences. I mean, I’ll really sit back and say, “Wow, that guy knows his grammar!”

    In any case, I don’t support pandering to the lowest common denominator and prefer to allow the language to evolve naturally over time. We do have some words that could use a little spelling reform, however, like colonel. Never could understand that one.

    Great post!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..Work Your Jaws

  8. otherdeb (Deb Wunder)

    Okay, there are a couple of things going on here.

    First: While the grammar geek in me screams at improper usage and spelling, the plain fact of the matter is that – for most of linguistic history – there was no standard spelling. That has only come about in the last couple of centuries, with the collections of words that eventually developed into the dictionaries we know and love.

    Second: I started screaming about this back when people started claiming that it was too difficult to understand how to use a semi-colon; I saw that as the first step down a slippery slope, and I still do.

    Third: If I recall correctly, the first country to start doing away with punctuation in addresses – and in print in general – was Great Britain, so I find it difficult to swallow when someone from there now complains that spelling is too difficult.

    Fourth: Anyone who thinks the primary aim of the American education system was really to educate people well is fooling themselves. It was designed to shape a very diverse group of people into a relatively homogeneous workforce. It succeeded in doing that for a while, but is not even succeeding at that small aim these days, sadly.

    Fifth: I do realize that what seems to me to just be laziness might very well be a real difficulty with learning the rules. I work in a school (and, no, I am not a teacher) where most of the student body are immigrants or the first generation children thereof, and I can understand the difficulty a lot of these kids have with English (even our watered-down American version). In fact, though, many of these kids are illiterate in their native languages as well. And since I do not believe that all of them were born stupid, I’m not sure how this can be dealt with.

    Did I want to sit and parse sentences as a kid? Heck no. Am I now glad I had to? Absolutely. However, the sad fact is education has become even less about education than about making kids feel good about themselves. My questions are: If it will hurt a kid’s self-esteem to fail a subject or lose at a gym activity now, how much more will it destroy his or her self-esteem to not be able to get a job that pays more than being a counter-person at a fast-food joint? In a society moving ever more rapidly toward information services and technologies, how will a person who cannot effectively communicate survive?

    Standard spelling and grammar evolved for the same reason manners did: to ease interactions between people of a society. Should we toss that away just because it might be difficult for some to master? I think not.

    (For the record, I am planning to expand on this comment at my own blog, http://www.thedanglingconversation.net, later today.)

  9. Pingback: The Dangling Conversation » If I Ran the Zoo…(Just how important are proper spelling and grammar, anyway?)

  10. --Deb

    @Other Deb–I have no problem with language evolving–it has to, or it ends up dead, like Latin. New words creep or bound in, old ones drop panting along the wayside, and “flavors” in spelling DO make themselves known. All of which is necessary to keep the language healthy. But it seems like, to “adapt” to all the suddenly needed changes–you know, to keep everyone on the same page–we would need to change a LOT of words, all at once. Drop the final-e off breathe, clothe, bathe; leave out apostrophes for pretty much every contraction … just because nobody seems to know that they belong there. Changing SOME words is evolution; changing vast numbers all at once is pandering (grin).

    @Melissa–It IS true. Those of us who can write more or less correctly DO look better compared to all the illiterate slobs out there. (Not that all of them are slobs, of course. The ones who are illiterate without recourse have my absolute sympathy, it’s the ones who had all the opportunities and just blew them off that irritate me.)

    Oh, and I don’t get “colonel” either, but addressing a military person as “Kernel” sounds a little corny. (Get it? Corny? Like a kernel of corn? … Um, never mind. It’s still early.)

    –Deb’s last blog post..Do We Need New Spelling?

  11. maria

    I can’t even read articles like this, because they infuriate me.

    There was a thread on a message board *ahem* that deteriorated somewhat and ended up being about people not spelling properly and such. So many people who DIDN’T have learning disabilities would complain that we ought not be so harsh on misspellers, think of those unfortunate ones with problems learning. Then there were people who spoke up who DID have said disabilities, and I noticed that most of their posts were more coherent and had fewer errors.

    I think that standardized spelling has probably helped create a more literate society. How much more difficult will it be to learn a language when things aren’t spelled the same way? If we allow two spellings of a word, will those learning the “easy” way understand when others among us choose to spell it the “difficult” way?

    (And please forgive typos, my keyboard is acting up a little.)

  12. J

    I’m not a skilled speller, but the idea of pandering to my foibles rather than teaching me to do it correctly is horrid.

    J’s last blog post..Kick Ass!

  13. Pingback: This, dat…whateva! « First Impressions

  14. Pingback: This, dat…whateva! | First Impressions

  15. kunk

    I just saw this somewhere: “Shoe Repair: I will heel you. I will save your sole. I will even dye for you.” 😀 And sometimes it is the other way around – different words spelled the same might be pronounced differently. I am not talking about “separate” as a verb and its adjectival counterpart, but rather things like lead/lead (metal / control/command). While these are signs of a sucky spelling/pronunciation correspondence in English, at the same time I think it is not such a big deal and that it is more than compensated for by the rest of English being totally awesome. 😀 Even I was able to learn to speak English on an acceptable level. Despite me trying, I have never really been able to follow a conversation or read an article in any other language than English and my native Czech.

  16. --Deb

    Of course, that shoe repair sign was using misspellings on purpose as plays on words, which makes it completely different. It wouldn’t make life easier for non-native speakers, though! (Or, you know, people who sadly just don’t know the difference.)