Friday, August 8, 2008

Spelling Correctly is for Losers

British academic Ken Smith has a solution for that pesky problem of students' spelling woes: "accept as variant spelling those words our students commonly misspell". I am more than slightly aghast. In an age with internet dictionaries and spell check, there really should be no need for students to spell many words incorrectly. And on handwritten papers, I can't help but feel spelling "their" as "thier" is more a question of speed in a timed setting and laziness in an untimed setting than it is a question of a student not knowing the correct spelling of the word.

As many know, I am an absolutely horrible speller. I -at certain points in my life- have had to forego using the word I wanted, the absolute perfect word for the sentence I was constructing, because spell check had no idea what I was trying to get across. My spelling is so bad I break the spell check. I blame Catholic kindergarden; I blame Catholic kindergarden for a lot, but in this case I'm certain it really is responsible. One of the best things about college was the fact that my roomie and best friend is actually a very good speller, and so I could just annoy the crap out of her whenever I needed a specific word spelled. And I did that a lot. But in no way do I think that my problems would have been helped had my professors and teachers accepted things like "otrocheous" for "atrocious". In fact, I'm willing to bet that my spelling would have devolved further.

Words are tricky things. Phonetic spelling doesn't always work in the English language, partially because English is one of those languages that appropriates words from other languages, and partially because the English are a strange folk and apparently decided that adding in extra -and silent- letters was good for a laugh. You really can't hold much about a language against a people who have a town spelled "Leicester" and pronounce it "Lester". And maybe poor spelling isn't the mark of a nation falling into a pit of ruination, but I can't help but think that we should continue to complain about the state of the education system if teachers and professors are correcting the same mistakes every year. And I can't help but think that a coherent system of spelling is a great help. 

Anyone who has read the letters of people like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, people who wrote before American-English was standardized (and also when f's and s's were interchangeable), could tell you that deciphering what the author was saying -even if he spelled the word phonetically- is sometimes (oftentimes) a challenge. The meaning of the document loses some of its panache when you cannot cheerfully go along with a rhythm to your reading, but instead have to stop every few words. One of the beauties of having a native tongue is the ability to not have to constantly translate said tongue in order to achieve maximum understanding. Misspelled words trip us up, for good reason. And so I can't help but feel as if Ken Smith's suggestion is to accept mediocrity in the face of the more difficult and time consuming effort involved in figuring out where the break down comes in education and why students cannot -or will not- spell correctly. 


Jess said...

Granted, the logistics of the English spelling system are pretty ridiculous, but they're already in place, and they work. I don't see why we should cater to the needs of people who want to make up their own rules. Ken Smith assumes that the way of spelling is slowly going towards more and more incorrect, but what about the vast majority of people who can spell, or at the very least are good at recognizing properly spelled words? It would be far easier, as you suggest, to reassess why spelling is such an issue and fix it at school. Otherwise, a few accepted misspellings could eventually lead to text style spelling being acceptable, and that's truly terrifying. In a world that claims to be super gung ho about communication, we certainly don't place accuracy or clarity all that high.

jjfs85 said...

I hear there's a pretty geeky artificial language called Lojban that is completely regular, as in:
-spelling is phonetic
-all grammatical rules are without exception
-combining the 1300 root words can create a vocabulary of millions of words.

They also claim that it's easy to learn. I wish English were like that instead of all convoluted with its complex grammar structures, rule exceptions, silent letters, and adopted foreign words. Gah.

Oh yea,

petpluto said...

See, JJ, I feel completely the opposite. Language is fluid, and what I think is so cool about English is that the rules can be bent and new words created or brought in from other languages. There is nothing deriving from English that quite gets the point across like if you just use the word "ennui". Grammar is cool because it is complex and because it allows for human variance in a way a perfectly "logically" constructed language does not. I can't see Whedon being able to do his thing in Lojban.

MediaMaven said...

Ken Smith is an idiot.

I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. You're really not that bad of a speller, and you correct yourself and know when you spell things wrong.

Standardized spelling is important because the language wouldn't function without it. We'd all be scrambling around to figure out what other people meant to get anything done, and I think we do too much of that already.

petpluto said...

I think you're giving me too much credit for spelling (thanks though!); much of that is the helpful squiggly line that pops up under a misspelled word. And then I'm just crazy enough to try a variety of spellings until I get the right one, utilize if I can't figure it out for myself, or -on extremely (now) rare occasions- call Jess and ask her.