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|So Whut ef i cant spel?|
Soh Whut ef i cant spel?
(Only a Looser Chicks Four Spilling Mystics)
Brian H. Gill
Sometimes writing is an exercise in unbridled self-expression, and it doesn't matter whether anyone other than the author can make sense of the result.
More often, we write to communicate ideas: to inform, persuade, or praise.
When the purpose is to communicate, a writer should make it as easy as possible for readers to understand the ideas being presented. To ensure clear communication, a writer shud spel werds rite.
You may have felt your train of thought derail at the end of that last sentence.
Even though the creative spelling of the final four words is phonetic, the unconventional sequence of letters forces a reader to stop and sound out each word. This takes attention away from the message. Flawless spelling and syntax are vital, especially on the Web, where readers. attention span is a handful of seconds, and where distractions are just a click away.
That's "flawless," not "stilted." The tone of a document should be as relaxed, or as formal, as the subject requires. Something written for a fast food place will probably have more apostrophes and simpler words than a discussion of a legal service would have.
Speaking of apostrophes, let's look at how plurals and possessives are handled in American English.
References from your high school English textbook to the AP Stylebook say that possessives are made by adding 's to words that do not end in s, and just an apostrophe for words that end in s. The word "it" is an exception to this rule. "Its" is the possessive of "it," and "it's" is the contraction of "it is" or "it has." (One more indication that English is an exceptional language.)
Plurals, for most words, are made by just adding s to the word. Words ending in ch, s, sh, ss, x znd z have es added to them, as in churches, boxes, and buzzes. Monarchs is an exception to this rule. English being what it is, the rules get complicated at this point. The AP Stylebook goes on for over a page after stating that simple rule, but you get the idea. More than one ship is ships, not ship's.
This rule has taken a beating recently. For some reason, apostrophe's are being added before the s in almost all word's that end in that letter, whether it's appropriate or not. This result's in sentence's that look odd, to say the least. Even if many people don't know why "Employee's Only" looks funny, it's a good idea to use the correct mark in the correct place. (Errors were intentionally made in this paragraph, for the purpose of illustration. In this example, the following are all incorrect uses of the apostrophe: "apostrophe's;" "word's;" "result's;" "sentence's;" and "‘Employee's.")
Again, the idea is to put up as few barriers to communication as possible.
Back to spelling. There have been times in the history of English when spelling has been much more freeform than it is now. Shakespeare, for example, is said to have spelled his own name more than one way.
That was when English was settling into more or less the form it has now. A few centuries later, we have developed standards and conventions for spelling.
The biggest reason, I think, that spelling and punctuation conventions developed was to reduce "noise" in written communication.
I'm going to review basic communication theory for a moment. This will take about 7 paragraphs: skip to the paragraph that starts with "And that's a piece of basic communication theory," if you already know this, or aren't interested.
Communication is a five-step process:
Sender's idea > Idea encoded > Encoded idea transmitted > Idea decoded > Receiver's idea
As I write this article, ideas form in my mind and (I hope) get organized.
Then I encode these ideas. That's a fancy way of saying that I think of the words needed to form the idea, and what order they should go in. Since this is written communication, I then recall how the words are spelled, and the other rules needed to form written sentences and paragraphs.
Transmitting the encoded idea in this case is a matter of storing it in written form, so that you can read it.
Decoding these ideas involves your seeing letters and punctuation symbols on your screen, recognizing them as words, and perceiving the meaning of the words.
At that point there should be a reasonably accurate copy of the ideas I started with, in your mind.
And that's a piece of basic communication theory. The point is that spelling and punctuation are part of the encoding process. Non-standard spelling and roll-your-own punctuation create "noise" in the encoded idea.
Static on a phone line forces us to concentrate harder on what the person at the other end is saying, The "noise" of inaccurate spelling and punctuation forces readers to work harder at understanding what the author has to say.
At some point, every reader will give up and go elsewhere. Use of standard spelling makes reading/decoding the author's work easier, and so delays the point at which a reader will get tired and leave.
Only a Looser Chicks Four Spilling Mystics
If you look through newspapers and magazines, you'll find examples of what I'll call "Checklish:" language which started as English, but mutated on its way to the published page.
Unless there's a literate proofreader, and a manager who will "waste" resources on proofreading, many publications will rely on a spellchecker. This sounds like a wonderful idea. Software doesn't get tired, and doesn't make mistakes. At least, not the way a human being does.
One problem is that English has a massive selection of words, some of which sound alike, but are spelled differently and have very different meanings. Even when a spellchecker doesn't flag a word, it may not be the right word. Consider some of the words that sound alike, but aren't the same:
It doesn't take two much thought too see that your in four embarrassment, if you're spellchecker is what you trust four proofing. Mine is telling me that the previous sentence is perfect.
This isn't to say that spellcheckers are useless. I use the one in my word processing software to catch typos, and as a quick-and-dirty proofing tool.
I also go through a more traditional line-by-line proof for practically everything that someone else will read. Communicating ideas is important to me, and doing so means using the right words, in the right order.
Besides, I don't want to be like the students who inspired former Graduate School Dean Jerrold Zar, of Northern Illinois University, to write the poem that ended:
So ewe can sea why aye dew prays
copyright © 2004, Brian H. Gill
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