The end of spelling

October 15, 2006

One of the coolest things about reading primary-language historical documents — especially in English — is how incredibly devil-may-care and yet expressive the spelling and grammar were. It’s one thing to be told that codified rules of spelling and punctuation are a relatively recent Victorian shibboleth; it’s another to realize that educated people of the 17th or even 18th centuries routinely used alternate spellings of things we don’t realize HAVE alternate spellings — like their own names.

Today’s newspaper brings evidence that perhaps we are as a culture reverting to this happy state of laissez-faire. I don’t even read the whole New York Times, but I couldn’t help noticing the phrases “reign in“, “husbands suicide”, “poured over“, even a missing apostrophe in the word “couldnt”. When the newspaper of record achieves this state of copyediting ignorance, I think we can all gleefully conclude that the Victorian struggle for spelling uniformity is over. Let a thousand alternate spellings bloom!

4 Responses to “The end of spelling”

  1. Ah, yes, the NYT. As a high-schooler, any time someone nit-picked an essay I’d written, my canned retort would be: “Excuse me, my writing quality is on par with the New York Times.”

    Of course, that wouldn’t affect my grade, but would get a wide grin from most teachers.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    And I suppose you want the same haphazard freedom to infect the writing of computer code, too? This isn’t just the perverse fantasy of someone for whom elegance, order and parsimony have become an iron (and gilded) cage?

  3. dda Says:

    Beyond the XXX’s vs XXXs irritating confusion – more of an inversion really, where you see plurals with an apostrophe, and genetives sans apostrophe, it’s and its being the most obvious representative – eggcorns is an interesting thing to study [and hunt for]. Part of it is laziness, indeed – I know of one guy who refuses to correct his typos, even if it makes his texts barely understandable: “I am too busy,” says he – but a lot is derived from pronunciation – for instance, *definately and definitely sound similar in some English dialects, and the first, incorrect, variant is often seen these days.

    I wonder if people now make the same mistakes when writing – do people even write anymore?

  4. There’s a difference though. Today the poor spelling is a result of ignorance, and the fact that people don’t read anything any more. Your example of “reign in” is particularly amusing because it demonstrates a lack of understand of the meaning of the word “reign” or perhaps what “rein in” itself actually means.

    I’m not some English major snob… I’m a computer geek too, with a pretty pathetic education from a “well-rounded” or “liberal arts” point of view. I don’t consider myself very well-read, but I do read a lot, and I love language.

    This is what’s lacking. If all anyone reads is the same kind of illiterate crap that he himself writes, you will have a much different situation that the pre-Victorian free-for-all you described. It won’t be a more anarchic language, evolving and branching in new directions, it will in fact devolve into semi-literate crap, much like Orwell’s Newspeak. Sure, the rules of spelling and grammar may not have been as fixed as they are now, but look at some good examples of 18th and 19th century writing. You will find a level of expression that is generally much more sophisticated and nuanced than almost anything written today. I think we are better at expressing ourselves more succinctly, but I do not think that we can generally express ourselves as eloquently, particularly in terms of abstract thought and concepts, as our more literate forebears.

    At this point, we absolutely need rules and consistency because in a more and more information-based society, preciseness in language becomes more and more important and can have larger and more wide-ranging effects on our day to day lives.

    Of course, one of the smartest and most literate persons I know spells like a lazy fourth-grader, so there’s not a perfect correlation between being exposed to the language and being able to express oneself correctly, but I can guarantee that 90% of the people posting on places like /. who regularly confuse “loose” for “lose” or use phrases like “would of”, could benefit from reading a real honest-to-goodness book.

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