To Spell or Not to Spell: The Standardized Spelling Debate

1609 edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets
by lana lynne on March 4, 2012
You've probably seen the word game that tests your ability to read words with transposed letters: the senetnce wolud raed somehting lkie tihs. And you probably have no problem deciphering abbreviated text-speak, which often makes it into students' papers, adults' emails, and social networking updates of any age: imo ur gr8! lol! rofl! thnx! etc, etc.

Some people would say that the digital age hath condemned correct spelling (not to mention punctuation) to the tumbrils, that in the age of auto-correct mobile phones and auto-finish internet searches, such antiquated rules must be let go. Take, for instance, the spelling showdown in Wired Magazine a few weeks ago. Anne Trubek, a professor at Oberlin College, wrote a piece calling for the abolition of standardized spelling, to which Lee Simmons of Wired's copydesk responded with an equally thought-provoking piece picking apart Trubek's argument.

As a self-professed word junky, I most often come down squarely against arguments like Trubek's. Her premise is this: "English spelling is a terrible mess anyway, full of arbitrary contrivances and exceptions that outnumber rules. Why receipt but deceit? Water but daughter? Daughter but laughter? What is the logic behind the ough in through, dough, and cough? Instead of trying to get the letters right with imperfect tools, it would be far better to loosen our idea of correct spelling." She points out that others throughout history have advocated for more sensible spelling rules than the ones that govern English, and that the evolution of language should be embraced, such as losing the apostrophe and the "e" in you're because the recipient will understand you anyway. Any last-gasp effort to keep language static is just snobbery.

Trubek's carefree approach is somewhat exhilarating -- I can see the appeal of throwing caution to the wind for free-form spelling. And that's coming from a native-English speaker. I can't imagine how students of English as a second language would be overjoyed -- until they tried to read a text written by a Texan versus something written by a Pennsylvanian. Did they use a "pen" or a "pin" to write?

In Simmons' rebuttal to Trubek, he allows for some wiggle-room among friends: "if you want to chat in leetspeak or use cutesy abbreviations in your texts, go crazy. You’re talking to your own tribe; they know the code, and they’re willing to indulge your affectations. And let’s be honest: A lot of that intentional misspelling, like the argot of any subculture, is meant to exclude outsiders—such as nosy parents. It’s a badge of membership in your little clique." But Simmons convincingly argues that professional news sites, governmental policies and the like, as well as all communications outside your clique need to be written with standardized spelling to avoid the potential pitfalls of playing with language. "How would contracts be enforced," asks Simmons, "if anyone could say that what appeared to be a promise of 'delivery' was actually a variant spelling of 'devilry'"?

Yes, the English major in me holds me back from willy-nilly spelling -- it was the discipline that taught me the wonder of word origins, the nuances of word meanings, the linguistics of dialects, and forced me to spend hours reading old books written when English spelling wasn't standardized. Is that an effort we really want to resurrect on a daily basis?
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  1. As a teacher, our time on spelling is very limited so Trubek's wish may come to fruition when the next generation hits the job trail.

    1. Oh Tender B, say it ain't so.

  2. i find the Simmons approach valid in daily life. Though unless encouraged, don't know how the kids will ever learn to spell correctly or have an interest for word structure when their almost native language is twitterish.. at least it will give a better ability to summarize :>

    1. That's actually a really interesting point Zo. The ability to distill a complicated argument down to one clear statement (140 characters or less!) is no doubt a challenging task -- and perhaps an interesting activity in the classroom?

  3. Anonymous7:44 AM

    The beauty and poetry I sometimes discover in the written word would be lost.

  4. To me it seems that opting for free-for-all language use is somewhat intellectually lazy. Really such a proposal is just a shortcut, when the exercise of thinking about what you're writing is a creative endeavor that can be very rewarding.


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