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Are we ready to make proper spelling obsolete?

May 23, 2016

The argument that society can do away with correct spelling is akin to saying the teaching of history, science or geography could be abandoned since there's Google.

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By Fanny Bucheli

In a recently published “Wired” essay, author and English professor Anne Trubek advocates doing away with spelling rules. Children spend years battling spelling tests and failing, for the most part, at spelling bee competitions. Is it even worth the trouble?

Trubek argues that, with new technologies and new means of communication, correct spelling has become unimportant, obsolete. Really? Let’s concede to be creative with private spelling in text messages and tweets. If the recipient doesn’t understand the message, tough, no harm done. Besides, electronic communication is supposed to be written in code. It’s a rite of non-passage, of being hip and cool and young, it’s an encryption unique to your particular tribe, a means to cut out the uninitiated (aka parents).

Knock yourself out with your shopping list too, no one cares. In fact, my grocery list is usually a messy affair comprising several languages, sometimes within the same word, and referring to “thingies” – I buy a lot of these.

But when it comes to serious writing, opinions differ. How is a message trustworthy when its meaning is not clear? How do you sign an employment contract if you can’t say for sure whether you will be the aide to the principal or a principle aid?

How do you know whether a report has been thoroughly researched, if the facts and figures are correct, when the spelling is guesswork? How do you trust a news article, if the journalist didn’t bother with spelling? There is an ingrained correlation between accurate spelling and credibility of the message. Or is there? Writers as prominent as Mark Twain and C S Lewis are said to have been very supportive of permissive, creative spelling.

Maybe Ms Trubek just wanted to stir the pot and see how far it could fly. Shocking to me however was a recent discussion among English, Business and Science teachers over lunch. While they didn’t go quite as far as to bury the good old spelling rules en bloc, they did seem to agree that class time could be put to better use while electronic spell checks and soon voice recognition software could be trusted to take over the chore of proper spelling. Really? I wonder which English teacher would appreciate receiving a curse list instead of a course list, as a spell check wouldn’t pick up on the ambiguity at play.

Isn’t the ability to write in our native tongue an essential part of our culture? Aren’t spelling rules, much the same as other regulations within a society’s part of a code of inclusion? Aren’t you disappointed to learn that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were dreadful spellers? Why don’t we do away with math, our phones have built-in calculators. Why bother with history, science or geography when there’s a little thing called Google? Why teach our children how to tie their shoe laces? There’s Velcro after all!

Fanny Bucheli is an FMT columnist.

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