Episode 308: February 9, 2012
This week I’m going to talk about why spelling matters. You’d think this would be obvious, but a prominent opinion piece in Wired sparked a spelling kerfuffle and showed that at least in some academic circles, proper spelling is considered optional.
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A Proposal to Do Away with Standard Spelling?
Here’s some background.
Anne Trubek, , an associate professor at Oberlin College, has an opinion piece this month in Wired magazine with the title "Proper Spelling? Its Tyme to Let Luce!"
Writers don’t usually get to write the headlines for their articles, and headlines can be misleading, but the bulk of the content in the article also appears to argue for allowing the concept of proper spelling to include multiple phonetic alternatives.
"It Would Be Far Better to Loosen Our Idea of Correct Spelling"
These two sentences will give you an idea of the article's thrust:
“No, autocorrect and spellcheckers are wrongheaded because they reinforce a traditional spelling standard. Consistent spelling was a great way to ensure clarity in the print era. But with new technologies, the way that we write and read (and search and data-mine) is changing, and so must spelling.”
“Instead of trying to get the letters right with imperfect tools, it would be far better to loosen our idea of correct spelling.”
Another point to clarify is that you might be thinking she was arguing for simplified spelling, which would be changing spelling to be more logical, but which would still have one standard spelling for each word. The simplified spelling movement has a long history and was supported by Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Carnagie, among others, but Trubek specifically addresses this idea in her Wired piece, and it’s clear this isn’t what she’s advocating.
"We Should Be Flexible" About Spelling
One reason I’m hemming and hawing is that I had a frustrating Twitter exchange with her in which she said her argument is being oversimplified.
On her blog, she says her point is that if a lot of people start using “l8r” instead of spelling out the word, “later,” then using the text messaging abbreviation doesn’t impede clarity or communication, so “we should be flexible about accepting this variation rather than decry laziness, stupidity, etc.”
From what I can tell, pretty much nobody who wrote about the Wired article or commented on it read it as anything other than a broad argument to loosen spelling standards, but I think it’s only fair to start from what she now says was her point.
Examples of Spellings that Coexist
Before I get to the arguments in favor of standard spelling—which I do favor—I’ll concede a point:
In rare cases, we already have two acceptable spellings for the same word, and they coexist without causing the world to implode.
For example, we have both “advisor” and “adviser,” which most sources say are interchangeable. We also have the pair “through” and “thru” which seems similar to Trubek’s “later/l8r” example. “Through” is what we use in proper writing, and although it’s common to see “thru” on signs or in advertisements, it makes a lot of people cringe, much as “l8r” would.
So although it’s true, as Trubek says, that when variants are as common as those for “advisor” and “through” using them doesn’t impede clarity or communication, I still believe the existence of multiple alternatives does lead to unnecessary confusion and shouldn’t be something we encourage.
For example, although the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage and Garner's Modern American Usage both say “adviser” (with an “e”) is preferred, Wiktionary, a Wikipedia-like dictionary, says “ 'Adviser' is used more generally to mean someone who is giving advice (what they are doing), whereas 'advisor' is more commonly used when it means the primary role (what they are), such as job title, etc."
I’ll take Garner’s and Merriam-Webster’s advice over Wiktionary any day, but the point is that the existence of two acceptable spellings creates confusion. People actually write to ask me how to properly spell "advisor/adviser" pretty regularly and “thru/through” comes up quite often too.
Spelling Serves a Purpose
Sure, English spelling is often confusing and seems illogical, but proper spelling serves many good purposes.