Should We Abandon Standard Spelling?
How do you feel about “l8r” for “later”?
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..
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 Carnegie, 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 “thru,” 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.
Clarity. As Trubek conceded in her article, proper spelling "enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity," and those seem like awfully good reasons for keeping it to me.
Computer Interpretation. Lee Simmons, Wired's copyeditor, wrote a clear rebuttal to the article (can you even imagine the outrage when this piece hit the copydesk?) and pointed out that computers are pretty bad at figuring out what we mean from context, so poor spelling is actually more important in a digital world, not less as Trubek suggests.
Understandable Contracts. I briefly discussed the Wired article in an interview with Scott Able of Content Wrangler and Val Swisher of Content Rules, Inc. and Scott made the excellent point that accepting loose spelling could be a nightmare in legal contexts, where clear and precise meanings are essential. We should definitely stick to standard spelling for laws and contracts.
A Common Context. In the comments section at Wired, Stanley F. Quayle made the excellent point that using nonstandard spellings makes it more difficult for people who aren’t native English speakers—he says the text messaging abbreviation “l8ter” to mean “later” currently means nothing to people in Europe and Asia who speak English as a second language. Just because an alternate spelling becomes commonplace in America doesn’t mean it will be understood worldwide.
Speed. Finally, as I pointed out on Twitter, my reading speed is significantly slowed when I come across nonstandard spellings, such as the ones in this sentence in the article: "Who shud tell us how to spel?” Trubek seemed to think that is a good thing: when I made this point she responded, "maybe, by slowing down, some think about language in a new way about conventions—how they evolve & how they will change."
I think language change is fascinating and generally a good thing, but at this point I just threw up my hands and realized that Trubek and I are never going to agree about spelling.
What do you think? How would you feel if you saw journalists or students use common abbreviations such as “u” for “you” or “l8r” for “later” in articles or papers. High school and college teachers tell me they’ve seen such abbreviations in student essays, which I’ll repeat I’m firmly against. (Do not try this at school; I think most teachers are on my side.)
Other Commentaries on the Wired Article
Lee Simmons's rebuttal (Wired)
John E. McIntyre’s post (Baltimore Sun)
Related Articles on Spelling Reform
Spelling Reform: It Didn’t Go So Well in Germany (Economist)
Text Messaging Grammar (Quick and Dirty Tips)