Sunday, December 2, 2007

learning to spell properly

Historically, the establishment of a supposedly definitive OED and also Webster's Dictionary created a level of institutional and cultural control over the variable ways people had spelled words earlier in the language we call English. These dictionaries created both the idea that a word should have a single spelling and that a dictionary could tell you what that spelling was. Simultaneously, the dictionaries did explain at least something, often a great deal, about the earlier history of variable spellings.

On the one hand, there was some positive practical benefit from this codification. In many instances, communication could be made easier when there was agreement about the nature of what communication looked like. Still, a deeply unfortunate and in some ways intended result of this codification was that people who were less likely to spell properly (mainly those who didn't have access to an education that taught them to spell) could also be codified not simply as uneducated but also as incapable, stupid, and so on. It was a perfectly vicious circle. Labeling people as incapable enabled not educating them which led to more chances to label them. And around and around we go.

Today those of us who speak English almost always assume that words have only one spelling, despite the fact that many of us don’t know the authoritative spelling of as many words as we like to believe. Yet the idea of questioning, challenging, or refusing dominant modes of spelling has a long history in literature, one that develops simultaneously with the belief in standardized spelling. Dialect and idiolect writing are two common such approaches. In dialect, spelling tries to mimic the way people speak in some actual cultural context or region. Idiolect, a more self-conscious attempt to create new, unique approaches to language, sometimes in relation to new contexts in which language is being used (idiolect using computer language, for instance) contains an overt attempt to change prior ways of using words. Spelling words in ways different than the dictionary suggests shows us how language really works in living practice or suggests how it might be changed.

Learning how to spell correctly indicates some degree of acceptance of institutional control over language. Not learning how to spell can indicate resistance (more active or passive as the case may be) to this control but doesn't necessarily. It can also indicate the fact that some people view the physical properties of language differently. Many people with what is called dyslexia see the visual field of the page in unexpected ways, the words literally moving around on the page or rearranging themselves according to puns or other similarities in syllables. In a culture which demands normative language abilities, people who see words that way can suffer from a lack of opportunities that often starts with getting poor grades. The problems caused by stigmatization of their differences are real.

But people who don’t learn to spell properly also include those who see themselves as not conforming as thoroughly as they would like, or who are rebelling only because they don’t feel they should have to learn. So while it’s important not to stigmatize non-normative spellers, it’s equally essential not to see them simply as heroic rebels. Not learning to spell as educational institutions would like can in some cases be done by people who feel impervious to (or at least uninterested in) the consequences, just as learning to spell can be a heroic attempt not to feel threatened and inconsequential. Add to the mix the complications of second language speakers of English, whose original languages contain different grammatical structures and sets of possible sounds, and it turns out that the notion of proper spelling involves all sorts of cultural and psychological issues.

Every time it seems simple to know what spelling correctly means, the world gets in the way.

An interesting wrinkle worth considering is that some non-normative spellings may be more disruptive to normative spelling than others. A recent linguistics study going around on the internet in various urban legend versions suggests that changed consonants are much more damaging to normative understanding than changed vowels. Based on the ideas in that study, if somebody sent me an “invatition” (two letters switched) I would still understand that I had been invited somewhere. But were I to receive an “inligation” (again, only two letters switched) then I would be much more likely to assume some legal issue was at stake.

A particularly disruptive type of non-normative spelling is the one in which a word, by being misspelled, becomes another word. The most amazing incident of this kind that I was involved in concerned a student who had written the line “I was bored by the [ ] system.” When I asked her what bored her, it turned out she hadn’t meant “bored.” She’d meant “barred.” Speaking for myself, I found the pun fascinating. As a student who felt like she had been unfairly kicked out of a institutional program, she didn’t find it fascinating. She wanted me to understand what had happened to her and was frustrated that I still wasn’t understanding.

As an editor who’s interested in work that challenges ideas about spelling, I’ve often found the boundary very hazy between a conscious misspelling and a typo. My general rule of thumb is that if a piece contains numerous non-normative spellings, they’re probably intentional, whereas one or two non-normative spellings in a piece are much more likely to be typos. In either case it’s crucial to query the writer, and I never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the misspelling is a typo. Sometimes I’ve missed the writer’s interest in a non-normative version of the word. In either case, it seems to me that authorial intention should be the final arbiter.

Assuming, that is, that one notices there’s an issue at all. Mistakes on this subject still happen to me. In the Telling It Slant essay collection that I co-edited, five typos were brought to my attention (all of them quickly) after the publication of the book. Four were typos in which the word should have been corrected to a normative spelling. One was a word that intentionally had been spelled non-normatively. It had been edited to become normative, by me I guess, although I had no memory of making the change. It’s quite possible that I thought I’d added a letter by accident and then deleted it because I thought it was my own mistake that the letter was there in the first place.

The will to proper spelling, it seems, can act itself out on a subliminal level.

I’d be interested in knowing how you feel about proper spelling. Like it, hate it, want to defend its importance or attack it? Are you a good speller? Would it be fascinating or disturbing to think that a lot of writers have difficulty spelling?


Stanley Bishop Burhans said...

Hi Mark!

Great post, this really gets at many interesting things, especially at the way institutional control gets taken for granted when it has some precedent behind it.

Whereas Elizabethan writers, for example, were creative spellers. They had the ability to spell words as they thought the words sounded. I've always thought that that ability was deeply related to the freedom that Elizabethan writers felt to coin words.

I'm a good speller, in that I typically remember the official spellings of words. Simultaneously, there are some non-standard spellings I prefer, often because the non-standard spellings are phonically much more similar to the prononciation. (It shouldn't be forgotten that English was standardized by people with some very bizarre notions about phonics; they thought "Worcestershire" sounded like "Wooster" for example. And the notions of grammar that these standardizers had were equally bizarre, since they refused to recognize that English was a Germanic language.)

I also like to coin words, which there is so much resistance to, even when the coinage is merely a fusion of two well-known words. I actually include a lot less coniages in my work lately, because there has been so much resistance over the years to the idea that I could use an invented word, one not in the dictionary. People feel that no one should be allowed to invent words, which is crazy. I mean, where do people think the words came from in the first place. I guess they think God, in the form of the OED, invented all the words?

Since I think words are human inventions, I think writers should invent new ones--Shakespeare invented several, and not even very good ones. I'll bet either you or I could come up with a better word than Shakespeare's "multitudinous" or his "incarnadine" (from his line "Multitudinous drops incarnadine").

It's the idea of realism which is at the base of resistance to coinages, because realism suggests that the writer should imitate the language in use in the world and therefore should only use words that people already use. Realism suggests that new words should be developed only outside of literature. And yet in the Elizabethan period, most new words were coined by literary writers. In our period, words are mostly coined by scientists.

hayesatlbch said...

Persecutor rather than prosecutor and old timers disease rather than Alzheimer's disease are a couple of times that I have seen humor in misspellings. Generally I think the importance of spelling normally varies with who is intended to read what you write.

As to the dyslexics that have trouble visually reading and have poor spelling as a result of changing visual memories, they can remove their visual problems with See Right Dyslexia Glasses available at

tmorange said...

i was always a pretty good speller as a kid but as an adult find specific issues (-ance vs. -ence for example) particularly vexing.

my work with students who have various expressive language disorders has shown me a lot about how specific language and writing orthodoxies can really cripple rather than facilitate healthy and productive language use. correct spelling is certainly one of those; "penmanship" is another. (think about what a funny work that is.)

fortunately we're past the days of forcing students to write with their counterintuitive hand, but the ways in which orthodoxies are taught and enforced can be quite brutal. grapho-motor dexterity, for example, has nothing whatsoever to do with quality of thought or expression, and yet this is precisely the implication of "poor penmanship."

tmorange said...

stan's comments about word origins and realism strike me as curious.

he asks, "where do people think the words came from in the first place. I guess they think God, in the form of the OED, invented all the words?" but if we're not foolish enough to think it's god as/or the OED, i hope we're not equally foolish to think it's the heroic literary individual either on any regular or consistent basis either. more often than not i think we have to admit ignorance on this one:

"Sometimes an entirely new word develops in a language. For example, the Proto-Indo-Europeans has a word for 'dog,' *kwon-, which survives in modern English as 'hound.' About a thousand years ago, during the stage of the language known as Old English, a new word appeared, spelled docga, which eventually came to replace the original word. Today, 'dog' is the normal English term and 'hound' has assumed a more specialized meaning of 'hunting dog.' Where did this new word for 'dog' come from? No one knows. We can follow in historical texts its first attestation, its subsequent rivalry with 'hound,' and its ultimate victory as the general English word for 'dog,' but we are not likely ever to know how this particular word came into being." (Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue, p. 31)

likewise i have a hard time seeing mimetic realism as a conspirator against neologism; not only would this attribute to realism a god-like power over language that stan denies above, but i find it also akin to blaming a saw for its inability to drive nails.

clearly a mimetic realism that aims to provide an accurate report or description of the world will be challenged by things that did not exist before. but how did "realism" prevent or resist the introduction of a word like "telephone" into english? in fact, the language contained precedents in already-known things (telegraph, microphone) for the naming of this thing and did so be recourse to analogy.

in other words, scientific realism does not resist literature in such a case but deploys its techniques.
and given the pace of scientific and technological discovery in the last couple of decades, is it any surprise that scientific coinages outnumber literary ones? (if we even buy the distinction on that level...)

and why should keeping the language fresh be the sole province of literature anyway? linnaeus was every bit the poet shakespeare was.



A student of mine, a few days ago, when writing down his advisor's name on a semi-official form, spelled it "Turdy" instead of "Trudy." After taking a moment to enjoy the typo, I corrected him, aloud, adding that Trudy is pretty cool (which she is) but he said, "So what?" and refused to correct his mistake. Huh. I mean: Huh. There's spelling. There's the meaning of words. There's getting corrected. And there's the "So What" generation. I'm not sure I'm bright enough to reconcile all that. Turdy / Trudy = So what. For real. I weep for America. ---B.A.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everybody.

Dan, I'm in your side in this particular case. Obviously the student in question wasn't critiquing the social problems involved in the history of spelling. And if he was rebelling, which he was, it wasn't for any compelling reason. "I don't wanna" is of course a certain form of rebellion, but probably the lowest level sort. Still, Bartleby got a lot of mileage out of it.

Tom, I'd say that there are a lot of ways in which writers are pressured not to invent new words, but I would agree that realist literature is hardly the main offender. Usually, from whatever quarter, it comes from the conviction that language invention belongs not to people but to the dictionary. As we know, that's not true, and new words get invented all the time--by scientists, writers, or any number of other cultural contexts. As you say, nobody has a monopoly on language invention.

That said, it's one thing to invent a word or to have your own associations for it, and it's another to be unaware of its more general usage. Wittgenstein's view that language is determined by its use makes sense here. It's often important to know how other people use words, and that's one of the things that teachers can help people learn.

And Stan, invent away! But I gotta admit, I like multitudinous. It's been a favorite of mine for a long time.

Elisa said...

I have a few poems with intentional misspellings -- in fact, none of the misspellings were my own; I lifted them from emails. In at least two of the cases the misspellings were unintentional but no less genius.

I noticed too late that one of my intentional typos had been corrected by an editor before being published...I noticed it while reading from said publication. My fault for not catching it in the proofs, but wow was I dismayed! Since for me the word in its correct spelling, in that context, held no value.

mark wallace said...

I'm sure that was frustrating, Elisa, as it was for the author who I did the same thing to.

What's odd, of course, is that, as I said, I did it without knowing that I had. Or I repressed the memory, at the very least.

While I understand that in many ways these things are the responsibility of the editor as well as the writer (I don't think it was solely your fault, that is), since that incident, I will often let an editor know if I've spelled a word in some purposefully different way. It's just too easy for somebody to screw it up otherwise.

But again, this problem usually goes away if there are numerous odd spellings in a piece, or lots of partial words etc. It's more when there is just a word or two, because then no norm of different spelling is established by the piece in question. That's when it really becomes shadow box time.

Beware your Correct Spelling Subconscious!

K. Lorraine Graham said...

My spelling is pretty horrible, and at the end of a week of teaching ESL and developmental English, it's even worse. My students know this about me, now, and on Thursdays and Fridays they politely correct any spelling errors I make.

I'm required to teach my students a lot of the basic conventions of English--so that means standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I try to emphasize that these conventions aren't the same thing as language and communication, they're the explanations of it. Even some of the more aggravating rules about commas, for example, have to do with context and what you wish to emphasize in a sentence. Of course, it's easy to imagine other rules for punctuation and grammar and spelling, but in the end these rules only make sense when you think about language as a form of communication.

Which is, I suppose, one of the reasons why invented words actually make sense.

I have an exercise that I do with students to help them develop their ability to intuit the meaning of words. I write a paragraph and then replace numerous words with words that I've completely made up but have assigned specific meanings to. They're often able to divine the meanings pretty precisely. Telling them that I've made up the words takes the pressure off, and they're much more willing to think about meaning contextually than when they confront "real" words.

donatoma said...

mispellings have great aesthetic appeal. one very very interesting student mispelling i've seen was :

"this story leaves mush to the reader's imagination".

now it's my motto for the poetry of everybody's relative autonomy. i.e. jackson maclow leaves mush to the reader's imagination.

i also find it charming when someone writes :

"king richard lost his thrown"

my spelling has grown worse with age. probably an effect of writing the kind of poetry i write, which has induced a kind of creative dislexia. i doubt spellcheck has helped - students make a lot of homonym errors because of spellcheck - although now i'm using it to learn how to spell properly again. (for example, i couldn't remember how to spell "homonymn" just now...)

that exercise lorraine outlines sounds really interesting. that's how we read new theory that has a specialised lexicon we've never encountered before. on the wittgenstein refernce: theory is an interesting case, actually, as the use of many important words has never been really normalised. somehow that doesn't diminish their efficacy.

frankenslade said...

My spelling is pretty good, and as someone whose root work skill is an editor I have to make sure it's better than pretty good. (Now that I've identified myself as an editor I'm sure I'll leave all sorts of mistakes in this post for readers to laugh at.) There are a few common words that trouble me and a few other words that my fingers are prone to type out incorrectly. Also, while typing and writing by hand, I have to watch running words together, in a sense, such as leaving off a silent e in one word when the next word begins with an e. That's more of a typing/thinking thing than a lack of spelling skills.

What troubles me most in spelling are proper nouns. For instance, I blank out on how to spell fairly common first names. I may be friends with a "Catherine" for 10 years yet still pause over the beginning letter of her name. Then there are people with quirky spellings of their first name, a "Krissy," for instance. How can I remember that spelling when everything I've learned tells me I should be watching the "Ch" and probably anticipating an "ie" at the end?

So, yes, I lean toward us agreeing on spelling and living with it. Hyphenation is another matter. I'd prefer less of it.

Anonymous said...