Spelling Right: On Standard Spelling

Rambling thoughts that are somewhat related to Anne Trubek’s article on spelling.

Reims Bible, Wikimedia Commons. Spelling was pretty important for monks.
Reims Bible, Wikimedia Commons. Spelling was pretty important for monks.

Spelling is important, right? I saw a post on Facebook about this Grammar Girl article, which was a response to a Wired article by Anne Trubek on spelling. I started to type a pithy comment about it, but then I realized I kept thinking of new things to say that went far beyond the scope of a pithy comment, so I figured I should turn it into a long, rambling blog post.

Reading over that Wired article, it’s not clear to me what Trubek’s trying to advocate. Spelling isn’t important? Computers make spelling harder? Auto-correct makes spelling worse? Spelling mistakes are okay? In the end I think her main point is that spelling rules are too hard for computers to enforce, so we should re-write the spelling rules to allow computers to work better. I agree that English spelling rules are incomprehensible and illogical, and if we were to set out to design a new language with a consistent set of spelling rules we could do a much better job, but I don’t think it’s realistic to think it would get any traction among the world’s population. I mean, Esperanto, Klingon, and Elvish are all newly-invented languages and they aren’t exactly taking off.

It used to make sense to write “l8r” instead of “later” because numeric phone keypads made it impossible to type out full words. I never did any texting back then and I’m glad I didn’t. Now I don’t think there’s much of an excuse for not typing out full words because we have QWERTY keyboards available to us on our phones. (Though admittedly it’s a lot harder to type on glass touchscreens than clicky keyboards.) Still, I tend to cut people some slack when they’re sending messages from phones because, instead of making things better, auto-correct makes it quite difficult to avoid bad writing. I agree with Trubek on that. I’d rather send out misspelled words than replaced words.

I do think that writing (and communication in general) should be tailored toward your intended audience, though. If I’m typing a message in an IRC or IM-like environment (like say a video game chat), I’m generally not going to capitalize anything but “I” and I’m probably not going to use proper punctuation. When I do that I’m tailoring my message for my audience, which covers a wide range of backgrounds anywhere from full-blown grammar police to 10-year-olds who can’t spell. To me, lower case without punctuation is a nice balance between targeting readers who prefer proper grammar and readers who prefer “l8r” and weird emojis. It’s not too pretentious to more, ahem, “casual” spellers, and it’s not too horrifying to, ahem, obsessive writers.

Away from the Internet, if I’m writing anything for work, I’m going to figure out who is going to be reading my documents and tailor my writing for them. Presumably they are all adults with a reasonable level of education. If it’s a technical document, I’m going to use acronyms and jargon but relatively straightforward declarative sentences. If it’s a presentation for people with no sense of humor, I’m going to try to sound like a Harvard professor and use denser sentences. If it’s a government document, I’m going to try to write sentences that sound like they are filled with information but actually have no intrinsic meaning at all. If it’s marketing copy, I’m going to jump off a bridge and kill myself because I don’t like writing marketing copy. But in every case, I’m going to use proper grammar and proper punctuation and proper spelling because it makes me look like a professional instead of a hack. Believe me when I tell you that people in the business world will judge you if your writing does not look professional.

(In blog posts, by the way, I write very casually, in a mixture of voices, with plenty of errors because I don’t have an editor, and I’m okay with that. Because quite frankly I consider every blog post I write to be a practice session of creative writing without being paralyzed by an inner editor.)

To me, the way you choose to spell things determines how you want to present yourself to the world. The way we write says a lot about us, whether we want it to or not. If someone doesn’t care about choosing standard spelling or decent grammar, it makes me wonder what else they don’t care about. Don’t they care about doing a good job in their chosen craft? Don’t they care about bettering themselves? Don’t they care about learning? Or are they just showing up to collect a paycheck? If I see someone’s resume, that’s what I’m thinking about when I read their sentences. (What else do I have to go on?)

So back to the Wired article. The author makes a good point that language evolves over time, and that standardized spelling is a relatively recent invention (1800s+). I don’t feel like that’s a good argument to avoid proper spelling though, because back when spelling was all over the place (say, the 1600s), it was because nobody knew how to read and write. It’s not that they were exercising creative license with their spelling, it was because they didn’t know how to spell. I don’t feel like the author is intentionally advocating a return to an illiterate society, but that’s what is going to happen when you stop teaching people how to spell. We’ll return to the days when only monks in monasteries could write books. (Future monks will be writing web content, and hopefully they will be paid handsomely for their rare skill.) Sometimes it feels like we’re already there. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve shaken my head at how few of my peers in the working world can communicate complex ideas in writing. I’m working on a project right now that is suffering badly because of a simple lack of documentation.

Overall I would agree that it doesn’t matter what kind of shorthand we write in text messages or Post-it notes to loved ones. However when we’re writing for a larger audience of potential strangers, proper spelling and grammar is pretty important if we care about being understood.

UPDATE: I installed a new WordPress plugin that does some SEO analysis, so I made some slight changes to improve this blog post’s marketing copy.