Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Does Spelling Still Matter?

Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing provides "bite-sized lessons to improve your writing" on her engaging blog The Writing Resource. Here Erin wonders about the fate of spelling in the era of text messaging.

Not long ago former colleague Ann Handley wrote an article on five common usage mistakes that people commonly make. In it, she said:

In an age of texting and Twitter, does grammar matter?...The truth is, no. It dznt always matter, unless u r anal. (Which I am, of course. But that's a choice each of us is free to make, at least in regard to grammar.)

Reading her words, I cringed, because I, too, am anal and feel that good grammar and usage still count. Ann went on to say that "good grammar and usage do indeed matter generally, because as a business leader, colleague and boss, it's important for you to communicate clearly, and to speak well." Ah! Even some would argue that grammar and usage don't count on Twitter, there are times when we want to impress others, and writing well is one way to do that.

To that, I would add that spelling still counts, too. Even with all the texting abbreviations, spelling counts. I know there are some who look down on those who spell out all the words in a text message, but there are reasons beyond impressing someone that we should attend to the proper spelling of our words.

Lit Time: Duncan's Poowooms

When you come right down to it, letters are arbitrary symbols for the sounds we make. You could argue that since they are arbitrary, spelling shouldn't count, and that for hundreds of years it didn't. If our ancestors could survive on fluid spelling, why can't we?

One reason is that the world is a smaller place these days. Millions of people around the world speak English. We can talk to someone in India or Australia in a shared mother tongue. But even though we may speak the same language, how we pronounce that language can vary greatly. You don't have to have different accents or come from a different culture, though, to sound out words differently.

Here's a poem written by my six year old, Duncan:

Wuts apona
1 man cood
Only caw
T to 4

In kindergarten (which he completes today), spelling doesn't count. The idea is to practice sounding out words and writing them down. These kindergarteners are also memorizing sight words (words they know how to read because they've memorized them), learning the different sounds letters make, and starting to sound out words as they read. It's a system that has worked well at our school. Both my children came out of kindergarten as beginning readers. But what would happen if Duncan were to continue to sound out words rather than learn to spell? Here's another poem:

Apon a tuym
Was a prsi
N w sed
More books
Dat is el he
The end

When Duncan asked me to type up his poems so he could create a book, I suggested that we should type them as he had spelled them and spelled correctly. He had to struggle a bit to read them all to me. These were his soundings-out, his versions of words, and he couldn't always make them sound the same again. Not surprisingly, the words he did spell right were all from his sight word list. Here's how we translated the first poem (I tried to keep his original line breaks; it is poetry, after all):

Once upon a
One man could
Only count
To four

The second poem translates to:

Upon a time
Was a person
Who said,
"More books!"
That is all he
The end

In the first poem, "once upon a time" is written "wuts apona taym." In the second, it's rendered as "wunts apon a tuym." Even in one writing session, Duncan didn't hear all the words the same way twice. True, he's in kindergarten and doesn't have as much experience with words as we grownups. But if we grownups had never studied spelling, would we hear things differently too?

Yes, spelling is arbitrary. Yes, it's work to spell correctly. But spelling matters. I loved Duncan's poems...once I understood them.

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Erin Brenner is the founder of Right Touch Editing, a customizable editing service. She has been an editing professional for over 15 years and is sought after for her expertise in language mechanics. She works on a variety of media in all levels of editing. In addition, she provides bite-sized lessons to improve your writing on her blog The Writing Resource and is the editor of Copyediting.com, which offers advice and training for those who edit copy. Follow her on Twitter at @ebrenner or on Facebook. Click here to read more articles by Erin Brenner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 8th 2010, 3:24 AM
Comment by: chris P. (tallai Australia)
Its wonderful that young children are at least thinking of words.The changes in the future of words will only progress in line with the changes of the past. An international language will be part of the future. Maybe this is where it will start.
Thursday July 8th 2010, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Annie G. (Gladwyne, PA)
Thank you for your enjoyable article. Although I think understand what you mean when you use the word "arbitrary", I would still hesitate to use it in connection with spelling because it ignores the lovely, layered history in the words, their genomes. Plenty of us older spellers often rely on what we know about words' history, family relationships, and origins to help us spell, which we could never do if the spelling was truly arbitrary.

About your wonderful kindergarten graduate: when our children were young, I remember there was a book called something like GNYS AT WRK written by a mother whose child taught himself to read by writing. In fact, our youngest did the same thing and it sounds as though yours is, too. It's true, their spelling does change day by day as they zero in on separate words!
Thursday July 8th 2010, 11:01 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
For those of use who get pleasure out of tracing words, like those who seek rare birds, the spelling matters because it is among the clues that lead us to our unconventional satisfactions.
But to the vast majority (who are no less worthy for not having our particular hobby) what matters completely is communication. And spelling matters there because as the medium becomes less exact, what it can communicate shrinks too. Misunderstandings, (like etymological irritations,)
can lead to interpersonal misery!
Thursday July 8th 2010, 12:05 PM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
Annie, how beautifully said--"the lovely, layered history in words"--and, Roberta--"pleasure out of tracing words"! When I work crossword puzzles, I take my time, tracing the memory of where I first remember encountering the word and savoring its lovely, layered, personal history. However, I love reading the compositions of Kindergartners like Duncan. One of my grandchildren angrily placed "I hat you" notes all over the house recently, bringing back memories of my daughter, who remembers doing exactly the same thing and being furious when everyone laughed instead of acknowledging her anger. If we want to be taken seriously, we may need to follow the conventions. Still, it's interesting to look at the variant spellings in historical documents, with names, even, being signed differently at different times by the same person. Even Shakespeare's name--which may not be a good example because of the old joke that his works were not written by Shakespear but by another writer of the same name--has variant spellings. Conventions constantly shift. Frequent spellers on VT's spelling bee have been changing our profile names with puns based on our misspellings, a running joke that wouldn't work without the checkered history of English orthography. But the game wouldn't make sense without the rules we defy when we engage in free play. Wonderful words!
Friday July 9th 2010, 8:21 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
Spelling correctly is important because the spellings of words in natural languages like English contain many redundancies. I believe English is about 30 to 40 percent redundant.

That means 30 to 40 percent of the letters could be missing from a message and it would likely still be understood by most people. The redundancies of natural language are like an armor coating that help ensure the message gets through, even under the toughest conditions (burnt or stained books, disrupted verbal communications and so on.)

By the way, I hope I don't have to remind people who read this page that the true and original meaning of "verbal" is "with words" NOT "oral."

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