Proper Spelling Is Arbitrary...Or Is It?

Monday, December 14, 2015
I am young enough to have grown up with a spellchecker on my word processors, and I depend on it more often than I should. I hold my breath and wait for the red squiggles to appear under a word, or, even better, Word automatically changes words for me and I don’t even notice it. Sometimes I write so fast that I can’t remember to use affect vs. effect. Or I accidentally type “its” instead of “it’s.”

As a professional writer and writing instructor, I feel like I need to uphold a solid grasp of American-English spelling and other Standard English rules. When I fall short, I feel embarrassed and guilty. Can anyone else relate to that?

Not all writers and English educators would agree with me. Anne Trubek, former associate professor of Rhetoric and Composition at Oberlin College, wrote: “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.”

My gut reaction to her thesis is “noooooo!” because communication is difficult enough using a standard language. But when I pause to think about engaging in looser rules on spelling, I just think “hmmm” and wonder if it would work, if we could still communicate effectively.

Her idea is not a new one – she has been writing articles about looser spelling rules since at least 2012 – but the idea is still relevant and up for debate.

Trubek argues that language is constantly in flux as our culture and communications technology evolves, so therefore it’s natural for our spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules to evolve, too. For example, she writes: “The most widely used American word in the world, OK, was invented during the age of the telegraph because it was concise. No one considers it, or abbreviations like ASAP and IOU, a sign of corruption.”

So what if we use “1” for “one” or “UR” or “your” for “you’re” or “thru” for “through”?

“It doesn’t matter,” writes Trubek. “The messagee will still understand our message.”

So I ask you – writers, aka lovers of language – what do you think of Trubek’s proposal to de-standardize the English language? Check out her article and the podcast and return to the comments to weigh-in on the debate!

Brought to you by Anne Greenawalt aka lover of language


Sioux Roslawski said...

Wow, Anne. I am old enough that I am aghast at different spellings being accepted (or should I say akcepted?). However, language is a living, evolving thing--or at least part of me believes that. Words have been added over the years... some words more or less fall by the wayside because they're too (or 2?) old-fashioned.

I guess I'm a bit on the fence. If we see words spelled in various ways, we DO still understand the message. But shouldn't there be a correct version that we all aspire 2?

You really made me wrestle with myself, Anne. Thnx.

Margo Dill said...

I can see using 1 or 2 if you are on Twitter and only have 140 characters to work with or even on text where you are trying to be quick. But I just can't see reading a book with that. AND I also cannot imagine just having one spelling for your or there. What would us grammar nazis do then?

GunDiva said...

Just the thought gives me heart palpitations.

I need to go lie down now ...

Marcia Peterson said...

LOL, GunDiva. Me too!

Angela Mackintosh said...

I've noticed that I subconsciously let things slide when it comes to social media. One of my jobs is as a social media manager for Instagram, and the spelling on there is horrendous! I only look for the MEANING behind what people are saying and completely gloss over the words. It's trained me to do that! How disturbing. LOL So I think it's already evolved. =/ Great post, Anne!

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