Friday, March 9, 2007

Spelling: How important is it reely?

Mina Shaughnessy, writing way back in the 20th Century before text messaging really got a foothold on our society, dedicates an entire chapter in her bible of basic writing to “Spelling,” but even today most elementary school classrooms across America still incorporate spelling into the curriculum as its own subject. So what’s the big deal? If I put e after i except after c, does it really matter? What’s the difference? Niece and neice—you can barely tell the difference. How about the email where you can read the whole thnig even thuogh the lettres are srcamlbed? In the not so distund passt minny peeple spelled wurds diffruntly and nobudy seamed to mind. Shakespeare has bene sad to sine his name morr than a dozen diffrint waz. Wasn’t it Andrew Jaxson who famously said "It's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word"? Even Shaughnessy admits that “of all the encoding skills, spelling tends to be viewed by teachers and students alike as the most arbitrary” (161). So, aren't Shaugnessy and all these other English-teacher types just getting all uptight over nothing? I mean, who cares if Dan Quayle adds an e onto the end of the word potato as long as he doesn’t pronounce it?

THE READER—that’s who. It’s a matter of efficiency. If you stumbled even once over the spelling errors above—if it slowed you down even half a second per line—that’s unacceptable to most readers. Sure, creative spelling for text messaging is okay—extra letters take more time to enter and more money to send, so the reader agrees to do a little more work to decipher the message. And for individuals using chat rooms and instant messaging, speed is a major factor, so a system of shorthand was developed (“lol” for laughing out loud, etc.) and likewise its taken for granted that no one is taking time to run spellcheck. However, for the writer in the real world—as opposed to the world of digital conversations—the reader is typically a little harder to win over. If you’re texting a friend or emailing someone you know, the motivation to read is already there, but the author of an article or a book publishing to the public, whether in print or online, is essentially a stranger to their reader. If they don’t play by the rules, that means the payoff has to be pretty high in order to motivate the reader to keep digging and deciphering line after misspelled line. It’s true that wordprocessing has taken a lot of the guesswork out of spelling, but it is still an important skill that unfortunately many basic writer’s do not possess. Luckily for the teacher of the basic writer, this chapter outlines some very helpful strategies to help get spelling back on track a little at a time. I think there is a temptation to go, “Oh, Shaughnessy is writing from a caveman’s perspective—spelling doesn’t count anymore,” but I think that the problem is as serious as ever, particularly for the basic writer.

Just an afterthought in favor of standardized spelling: Can you imagine Googling the internet for information if spelling was not standardized? (There are actually sites and scripts for searching ebay.com for misspelled entries because many collectors won’t see the auctions if the item is spelled wrong, so some people get great deals by looking through the misspellings.)


Shaughnessy, Mina P. Errors & Expectations. Oxford University Press: New York, 1977.

1 comment:

Gabe Isackson said...

Excellent self argument! I did enjoy reading that first paragraph, but I think I enjoyed more the points of the second.