Why Spelling Matters

Bad spellingSometimes I despair when I surf through the social media. Technology has empowered everyone to be able to comment, to post their stories, to share their opinion. Yet it has not enabled their ability to compose a sentence, or to spell the words correctly. It has not made us better grammarians, better spellers.

And in my despair, I’m not alone. Others take exception to the general dumbing down and its accelerating spread online.

It’s not just the easily-confused homophones like they’re, their and there, board and bored, your and you’re. What’s heartbreaking about those mistakes is that the differences are simple, easy to understand, and taught at at early age. How do people forget them so easily when they get older and more educated?

And not simply the rather common typos of dropped or accidental letters. You can’t always blame the results of a flaky keyboard on the writer, and few of us have been educated as touch typists or stenographers, so our skills may be lacking. And of course we have to be tolerant of the millions for whom English is not their native tongue, and laud rather than criticize their efforts.

Because I often stump about on the keyboard and hit errant keys while typing or don’t press a key hard enough to register, I can understand how too becomes to, care becomes car, waiter becomes water, quiote becomes quite (and sometimes vice versa).

But  tre for tree? Mony for money? Hosue for house?

We all have spellcheck in pretty much every app, which, if not perfect, at least identifies most common problems. They show up as little angry red underscores as I write this piece; hard to avoid. I must resist the temptation to obey them and correct my examples.

Are we not bright enough to use this ubiquitous technology? Is the problem that we are technologically illiterate? No.

I’ve read these examples from Facebook on one site:

“take it for granite” instead of granted, petafile for pedophine, raping for wrapping, prosentation for presentation, perthetic for pathetic, conceded for conceited, then for than (and vice versa – very common mistake), majic for magic, grammer for grammar, commen for common, loose for loose, forchen for fortune, mourning for morning, preasure for pressure, pea for pee, affense for offence, dose for does, rite for write, colladge for college, homosidal for homicidal, sense for cents, hungary for hungry, intelligense for intelligence, witch for which, waist for waste, wounder for wonder, sewing for suing, logged for lodged, speel for spell, boarders for borders, died for dyed, rite for right, past for passed, beet for beat, go’s for goes, Labia for Libya, colon for cologne…”

Many of which make for humorous reading, but poor communication. Plus…

retarted, inforcing, teecher, recponcibility, sementary, peppol, exhaugstion, decisons, tomarrow, gardian, unfare, unniversity, ludacris, litarecy, commet, tipe, cought, frusterated, driveing, rideing, teecher, blak, tares, beutiful, asain, spint, huunnies, gratest, huray … and then plurals written as possessives – truth’s for truths, musician’s for musicians, or misplaced apostrophes like your’s, and so on…

The list seems endless.

What’s most annoying is that so many of these errors are easily caught by spellcheckers – technology on every device and available for or integral to every browser – that the posters routinely ignore or refuse to acknowledge. But perhaps even if a word is identified by the spell-checker as incorrect, the poster doesn’t know the correct form, and rather than search for it, ignores the warning.

Stopping to proofread, stopping to correct takes too much time and thought in an era of snap judgments and immediate, off-the-cuff answers. It’s a self-inflicted wound.

Where is the pride we used to take in being able to spell, to write well? Have we lost our literary self respect?

Back in 2010, a report came out that “low level literacy” in adults was increasing in Canada. As the CBC reported it,

By 2031, more than 15 million Canadian adults — three million more than today — will have low literacy levels, the Canadian Council on Learning says in the report released Wednesday.
“Unless some action is taken to reverse this trend, the literacy dilemma we are facing can translate into profound challenges for Canada’s social well-being and economic prosperity,” the council warned.
With low literacy skills, a person can deal “only with simple, clear material involving uncomplicated tasks,” the council said.

Low level literacy doesn’t mean a person is illiterate – but it affects their comprehension, communication, their ability to work, their ability to deal with complex written instructions, which all affect their income, social status and living condition. Literacy can be the difference between a good job and a McJob.*

The Conference Board of Canada commented on this report, noting,

The results of international adult literacy surveys dispel the old notion that individuals are either literate or illiterate. There is no arbitrary standard distinguishing adults who have or do not have skills. Instead, skills are defined along a continuum of proficiency that can be used to denote how well adults use information to function in society and the economy. Adult literacy survey results show a strong link between literacy and a country’s economic potential… Canada is a “B” performer on the percentage of adults that scored low on adult literacy rate tests… Four out of ten Canadian adults lack the literacy skills necessary to be fully competent in most jobs in our modern economy.

Apparently the problem is worse in the USA. According to Statistic Brain, in April the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy reported,

  • Percent of U.S. adults who can’t read 14 %
  • Number of U.S. adults who can’t read 32 Million
  • Percent of U.S. adults who read below a 5th grade level 21 %
  • Percent of prison inmates who can’t read 63 %
  • Percent of high school graduates who can’t read 19 %

Scary figures, if correct.**

Bad spellingSure, English is quirky, inconsistent, complicated and sometimes difficult. But it has rules, internal consistencies and structure. Learning to use it well makes you communicate better. Learning to use the rules properly makes you smarter, too, because they exercise the brain the same way a tough crossword or Sudoku puzzle do.

The one thing all humans share in common is our innate need to communicate. We use words to express ourselves, our ideas, our opinions. Words are the basic building blocks of our communication. Poor grammar, poor spelling, poor use of words makes communication clumsy, awkward, dense. It’s like using a chainsaw to cut a sandwich.

When people play a game – hockey, soccer, tennis, cricket – they learn to abide by the rules. Players who don’t get kicked off the field. Or lose the game. Why is communication any different? Communication is, as Professor Dalton Kehoe tells us, often competitive. You want to win the game, you need to play by the rules.***

Spelling matters because it is linked to meaning, context and clarity. Some people argue that it’s still communication even when misspelled, but I disagree. Communication isn’t a monotype;  it has shades, nuances, levels. A simple squiggle like a comma can change meaning immensely. There’s a world of difference between “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Sure, when we’re talking, we understand the context and we don’t mistake they’re with there. And when we say “Let’s eat, Grandma” we make a small verbal pause at the comma and alter our tone slightly after, so people hear it as intended. But with the internet, we do far more textual communication than verbal, so our writing skills need to be honed.

And not simply honed: perfected in a competitive technological age. Anti-intellectualism is dumbing us all down and we have to resist it to avoid a culture of literate haves and have-nots.

Will illiterates produce great literature, movie scripts, plays, song lyrics? Will they write poems, essays or novels? Will they help craft legislation, legal agreements, write technical manuals or draft project proposals? Run Fortune 500 companies? Clearly not.

Spelling mistakes can also be expensive. A BBC story in 2011 said bad spelling was costing online sites millions in sales:

An online entrepreneur says that poor spelling is costing the UK millions of pounds in lost revenue for internet businesses.
Charles Duncombe says an analysis of website figures shows a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half.
Mr Duncombe says when recruiting staff he has been “shocked at the poor quality of written English”.
Sales figures suggest misspellings put off consumers who could have concerns about a website’s credibility, he says.
The concerns were echoed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), whose head of education and skills warned that too many employers were having to invest in remedial literacy lessons for their staff.

And spelling is connected to credibility, as Canoe.ca points out:

When spelling errors crop up in written publications, such as online publications or in print, it raises questions as to the credibility of the writer and the document as a whole. While some spelling errors are clearly typographical mistakes, others can alter the meaning of a document altogether. According to an article released by BBC News in July 2011, U.K. companies are losing millions in online sales due to spelling errors. The reason for this is partially due to the Internet reader’s short attention span. Online users are easily distracted, and once a spelling error is spotted, many online readers lose faith in the quality of a website’s content.

Would you hand out a business card with a spelling mistake on it? Submit a job applications rife with spelling and grammatical mistakes? I can only hope not.

“Oh, the sentence!” writes Constance Hale, in the foreword to her book, Sin and Syntax.

“The shuddering, sinuous, piquant, incandescent, delirious, sulking, strident possibilities of it all! A sentence can loll a l’odalisque, zap, implore, insist, soar or simply lay out the facts. This handful of words, each with its own humble or brazen function, lies at the heart of every literary genre, every letter, memo, article, thesis, seduction, threat and retort.”

Spelling cartoonSpelling matters because it’s intimately tied in with vocabulary. A larger vocabulary allows a more nuanced, more expressive communication. Two people with grossly different vocabularies will be speaking in different languages. Just try to talk with a doctor or an engineer in his or her technical terms.

Read the quotation above and ask yourself how many of those words get used – or used in such a manner in such close conjunction – on Facebook or Twitter. But doesn’t that introduction soar? Doesn’t it sing loudly and vibrantly? It does so because the author could spell each word. You can’t understand a word properly if you can’t spell it.

It’s not snobbery. It’s not elitism to spell correctly: it’s survival in a competitive age. Language is what separates us from the animals, and if we can’t use it well, we lose an important evolutionary advantage. Language is a tool humans developed early, but unlike flint knives and wooden spears, it is one that still matters on a daily basis.

You don’t need to read Shakespeare, or Tolstoy, to be literate, but you do need to be able to read – and understand – a job application, an instruction manual or your boss’ memos.****

“…The mere presence of language capability doesn’t guarantee the exchange of ideas,” writes Marilyn Vos Savant, author of The Art of Spelling. “In order for communication to really happen, at least two people with language ability have to agree on a common language.”

At Spellingcity.com an article explains why spelling connects us with sounds, not simply ideas:

Do we read whole words in an instant, or by sounds? The fluent reader quickly perceives whole words, but the path to fluency is through mastering the connection between letter combinations and the sounds they represent. The fact is that our letters stand for sounds, not ideas…
Learning to spell helps to cement the connection between the letters and their sounds, and learning high-frequency “sight words” to mastery level improves both reading and writing. Joshi, Treiman, Carreker and Moats describe this connection:  “The correlation between spelling and reading comprehension is high because both depend on a common denominator: proficiency with language. The more deeply and thoroughly a student knows a word, the more likely he or she is to recognize it, spell it, define it, and use it appropriately in speech and writing.” They also note that “the major goal of the English writing system is not merely to ensure accurate pronunciation of the written word – it is to convey meaning. If words that sound the same (e.g., rain, rein and reign) were spelled the same way, their meanings would be harder to differentiate.”

In The Elements of Expression, Arthur Plotnik wrote that we all want to communicate, and communicate well, but most us stumble and flail for the right words:

“We ache for the radiance of expressiveness – of vivid expression. We grasp for words to light up the cosmos or the written page or the face across the table. But the harder we try, the more we seem to darken the waters, like a squid in its ink.”

The radiance of expressiveness: what a sparkling phrase. And as reported on a HuffPost blog in 2012, it’s about clarity:

“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. Computers, smartphones, and tablets are speeding the adoption of more casual forms of communication — texting is closer to speech than letter writing,” says Anne Trubek, an associate professor at Oberlin College in an article for Wired Magazine.

Learning to spell properly is an exercise in self-discipline. Like quitting smoking, it requires will, character and constancy. It demands constant awareness, like an unrelenting Zen master watching every word, every sentence you type. And when it becomes automatic, you become an initiate to the secret world of words, where their magical power takes flight.

It’s in our own self-interest to communicate better. And it will certainly help our self-respect when we can.


* Literacy is measured by various means, and the methods have changed in the past two decades, but the Canadian Council on Learning explains it well.

** Still looking for confirmation of these numbers, although the HuffPost reported them as well. The full report on literacy in the US is here, but it doesn’t seem to have the numbers as shown above. However, it does say,

Twenty-one to 23 percent — or some 40 to 44 million of the 191 million adults in this country — demonstrated skills in the lowest level of prose, document, and quantitative proficiencies (Level 1). Though all adults in this level displayed limited skills, their characteristics are diverse. Many adults in this level performed simple, routine tasks involving brief and uncomplicated texts and documents. For example, they were able to total an entry on a deposit slip, locate the time or place of a meeting on a form, and identify a piece of specific information in a brief news article. Others were unable to perform these types of tasks, and some had such limited skills that they were unable to respond to much of the survey.

*** In his audio course on Effective Communication Skills from The Great Courses. Very good course, by the way.

**** However, it never hurts to read any and everything you can because you can learn from it all. Even the dictionary – perhaps a bit short on plot and character, but it’s a treasure chest for ideas and vocabulary building. Try reading a few pages just for fun. It can be quite addictive once you start. I recommend the Oxford edition.

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