Why students should care about spelling

Its not 4 the reasonz u thynk


Photo by Alex of Gothenburg on Flickr

Does it matter whether university students can spell or not?

Anne Trubek of Oberlin College argues in a Wired article entitled Its tyme to let luce! that standard spellings are obsolete.

Oh, they were fine when we all stumbled through our lives under the oppressive burden of paper and ink, but adding an apostrophe on an iPhone takes an extra couple of keystrokes, and really, why spend the time?

In one sense—that we should not be slaves to an arbitrary sense of what is correct—Trubek is right. But that misses a bigger point. I will suggest there is a good reason to care about spelling, and to talk about it even at the university level, though it’s perhaps not the reason one might think.

As everyone knows, while the advent of the printing press began the process of standardizing English spellings, the various twisted histories of words have left us with results that seem bizarre to English speakers who stop and look carefully at words. Why should the past tense of the verb read, for instance, be spelled the same as the present tense, while the past tense of the verb lead is spelled led?  Shouldn’t we say, “Yesterday, I red an interesting blog post”?

But that, in itself is a good reason to care about spelling. Orthography—spelled with a ph because of its Greek roots—is, to my mind, not primarily a matter of being correct or even literate. What it is, instead, is an entryway to the nature and history of our language. It’s a fascinating way to gain a more profound understanding of how language works—and surely that’s one of the key functions of higher education.

Consider standardization, for instance, that bugbear that Trubek so resents. As readers probably know already, the most important events in the standardization of English spelling came in the 18th and 19th centuries with the advent of the first, large-scale, authoritative English dictionaries. In Shakespeare’s time it made less sense to think of a single correct spelling for a given word since there was no agreed-upon reference to check one’s spelling against. But after Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster produced their dictionaries, people had reliable authorities to turn to.

Already we’ve looked through the door of English spelling and found some intriguing issues. For one thing, the fact that two major authorities on the language emerged around the same time on opposite sides of the Atlantic goes a long way towards explaining the differences in British and American spellings. Webster, a proponent of phonetic spelling, tended to prefer simpler variants like color (rather than colour), and judgment without an e in the middle. Johnson made his own choices, of course, preferring, for example, the more French-looking verb endings on words like tantalise.

Canadians, of course, have been caught in the centre/center ever since.

All this leads to an even bigger issue. To what extent should we trust experts for our language? Some will say never, that the language as actually spoken is the only language that matters. The people are the only true authority. That view has much to recommend it, especially since meddling experts have sometimes erroneously changed spellings based on unfounded assumptions about words (for instance, one sings in a choir, a bizarre spelling if there ever was one, because early philologists wrongly assumed the word was related to chorus).

The problem with that view is that if you check in with the people, they are often looking for advice. The people want to know the difference between rein and reign, and, I dare say, would rather look it up than have to figure out everything for themselves.

Indeed, we might turn Trubek’s argument on its head, and say that the technological revolution embodied in the Internet and the smart phone doesn’t undo the work of Johnson and Webster; it extends it. Print dictionaries allowed for unprecedented standardization of spelling because they gave people easy references. Surely the same is true on an even more profound level with the advent of dictionary.com and similar tools. Come to think of it, if everyone spelled things just as they liked, how would you look up a word you didn’t know?

I’m not trying to tell you how to spell. Or make you feel bad if your spelling is not immaculate (mine isn’t). My point is simply this: spelling is a door to the big questions we need to ask about language. Let’s not close it.

Todd Pettigrew is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.


Why students should care about spelling

  1. Todd, u betray an elitist bent when u rite that spelling, ‘to my mind, is not primarily a matter of being correct or even literate.’ U enjoy it ‘as an entryway to the nature and history of our language.’

    It is fair enuf that u enjoy it that way! But that is not the primary reason for spelling.

    Trainspotters enjoy the history of trains, but railroads dont now find the old ways efficient. Linguists and other wordsmiths can enthuse over how our language works, but its prime purpos is everyday communication – now. As i rite this, i am not taking notice of the history of my words. I am trying to rite effectivly.

    The language does not belong just to linguists and intellectuals. It belongs to all its users. Most of them just want to hav their message understood.

    And they all hav a rite to be able to learn the ritten form. Our current English spelling discourages about one-fifth of learners, who never become fully literat. That makes our spelling dysfunctional. Dysfunctional tools ar normally redesigned or at least sharpened. Our spelling needs similar treatment.

    • I fully agree with Allan. Yeah knowing the root of language is nice but that hasn’t changed the word is simply continuing to evolve. Knowing that a PH is from a Greek origin is fine but if the word changes now how is that different from the word changing from Greek to English? The root cause is still the organic and cultural influence of time and people on the language structure is it not?
      To the point of people needing an authority well isn’t the presence of that authority self perpetuating its own need? The argument seems to be I need a dictionary to spell this word right. Why? Because its spelt correctly in the dictionary and everyone uses that dictionary.

    • That’s all well and good, but your considerable misspellings made your argument difficult to read.

      Of course, good luck getting a job or entry into an education program with horrible spelling errors all over your CV and cover letter. And poor spelling makes you appear uneducated and/or sloppy.

      • Josh: Not misspellings: difrent spellings!

    • I find your comment extremely difficult to read. So I think correct spelling is important because it allows people to actually read what you wrote easily!

      “Text speak” is extremely hard to read, and, in my mind, indicative of someone who simply can’t or won’t take the time to actually spell words correctly. It’s laziness in my mind, and as a graduate student marking undergraduate assignments, I simply won’t accept any “text speak” and the students know this.

      If you want to be taken seriously, you need to spell correctly. Yes, language evolves over time, but at the moment, English is still English. It hasn’t been super-ceded by text-speak, at least not yet.

      • I can understand your distress at trying to read words with unfamiliar spellings.

        Once literat we read whole words, not individual letters. If the shape of the word changes, our reading slows. Tho we can still manage, as shown by the Cambridge University study which showed words with the first and last letters retained, but the internal letters jumbled, wer still readable.

        Change always takes time to adjust to. But learners, who ar not yet accustomed to current spelling, find becoming literat much easier and quicker if spelling is predictable and does not play tricks on them. Our 80 percent functional literacy rate (worldwide) is too low, and can only be improved if we upgrade our spelling.

        If i am riting to the bank manager for a loan i will take extra care that my spelling is ‘correct’, if faulty. Here i am riting about spelling change, and hence a few adjusted spellings that try to better follow our spelling conventions ar in order.

      • That’s another interesting comment given that you are haphazardly dropping first and/or final letters of words. Very hard to read.

        In any case, English is unusual with respect to highly standardized yet highly inconsistent spelling. That is not the case in German, Spanish, or French. And for languages that don’t even use alphabets (Chinese, etc.), identical-sounding words can have entirely different meanings, and so different characters.

    • While using correct (traditional) spelling and grammar may be a matter of individual choice and subject to cultural changes, anyone doing so is presenting an image of themselves that may not be what they intend. Just as I wouldn’t hire a person for our offices who showed up with pants around their thighs and underwear showing, or body mod windows in their cheeks, I would also not hire someone that uses text speak in their resume and correspondence. An impression of ignorance or carelessness is not something our company wants to present to our clients.

    • For God’s sake, who can read and understand the garbage you are spewing in your post? English is not my native language and you might as well have written it in Chinese. Are you really a student?

  2. Being able to spell is an indication of being well-read. Books have editors and copy editors for the most part, and give you the opportunity to see words spelled correctly. If you can’t spell, chances are you don’t read very much (at least, nothing of any substance).

    • I often read this argument. My response is that i hav a sister-in-law who says she is the worlds worst speller (i can believe her!), and i see her as the worlds most avid reader!

      • Well, then she’s the world’s least avid learner.

      • Joe: Not so. In mid-life, after her family had grown up, she gained a university degree. She is a very capable person, and would be annoyed by your comment.

        Just as i tried very hard to master elementary chemistry when training for teaching, and failed miserably, so for some people an erratic spelling regime is a mystery, impossible to solve. U may find it easy; that doesnt mean everybody should.

  3. I have a couple of comments. First, the style of the writing should be tuned to the audience. If one is addressing a business colleague, or a potential employer, it’s important to write in a way that shows you take the communication seriously, and that includes accurate spelling and other aspects of good writing. When we are hiring, badly written letters make us wonder about the attention to detail in other areas. For more casual contacts, a less formal approach is fine. Just don’t develop bad habits. Also, it’s a bit ironic that we are having this discussion in an era when the ability to rapidly search documents electronically is increasingly important. Spelling variants make this task more difficult and less accurate, so standardised (standardized) spelling may be even more useful.

  4. I applaud the defence of language (spelling) For more than 30 years I was a specialist in providing assessments and prescriptions for students with a learning disability in reading and writing (spelling) Unfortunately most educators emphasized the importance of reading over written language–to an extreme, when the teaching of language principles was actually, if not forbidden, but curtailed in Ontario.The tremendous advances in neuro-cognitive psychology have substantiated the belief that language will deteriorate unless enhanced through use.The ability to read will be negatively affected by a significant deterioration in written language. Historically, communication through language began with pictures (symbol)first,then the gradual development of primitive phonemes to reflect spoken language, then more sophisticated rules to enhance meaning In simpler terms, something had to be written before it could be read.
    The increasing practice of texting,however seems to suggest that society is going backwards by reducing language to a symbolic form. This is especiallly alarming with evidence of significant increases in usage by children and teens before formal operations in written language have been established in their brains.

    • Joyce: Spelling is not the language. Language is words, their usage, meanings, and etymology. The alfabet and spelling ar the tools we use to record it. There ar still some languages which hav no ritten form. But they ar still languages.

      A language evolves naturally. Alfabets and spelling ar deliberat human inventions to enable the language to be ritten. For good ritten communication there needs to be a recognized code. This can be changed, preferably for the better. Our current spelling is overdue for this treatment.

  5. I suppose the best reason for people to know their spelling and grammar is so that they understand the difference between “knowing your sh!t” and “knowing you’re sh!t”

  6. This doesn’t have to be an either or debate. English is not a monolithic language and exists in many dialects, variations and versions. We also have written English, spoken English (both informal and formal) and now, Internet/texting English. One needs to learn when and how to use the appropriate forms. Spelling can be quite important as anyone who has got an incorrect prescription can attest to, but it also conveys meaning. From the example above, write and rite are two different words with different meanings and while the former is a verb, the latter is a noun. Spelling difference is the best way to sort out this information when it is presented in a written form.

    • Alison: Sound and sound and sound ar two nouns and an adjectiv! They ar indistinguishable here, but when used in communication they reveal their meanings by their contexts. Variation in spelling is not that vital.

  7. In reading the article AND comments, I am surprised that the mention of “Romance Languages” did not occur. ???

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