Thursday, August 07, 2008

Spelling optional

From the Times Higher Education Supplement:

Teaching a large first-year course at a British university, I am fed up with correcting my students' atrocious spelling. Aren't we all!?

But why must we suffer? Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.

The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment", so why can't "truely" be accepted as a variant spelling of "truly"?

Nope. It's hard enough to read some kinds of writing without trying to decipher the spelling. I'm not just talking about students, either. If you're the kind of person who sometimes reads comment threads at msnbc.com, consumerist, or the New York Times (yes, that would be me), don't you skip over the largely illiterate ones, the ones from people who can't spell, punctuate, or capitalize, let along make a logical point?

Someone should do--and probably has done--a study of this.

1. At what level of bad spelling/incoherent sentence structure/poor logic do readers stop reading, say, a comment thread? An email message? A blog post?
2. Do all readers stop reading these, or is it just that subset of humanity whose titles rhyme with Menglish Meachers?
3. Which of these annoys you most if you're reading online?

6 comments:

vague said...

I completely agree -- often the badly written posts are just too difficult to read. You know what bothers me just as much, though? When people write in all lowercase. I mean, I had my E.E. Cummings phase of bad poetry in college, too, so I get that. But if I'm trying to read even an otherwise well written post with no caps, I usually give up. Capitalization simply makes things easier on the eye, and quicker to read. If I have to search too much for the beginning of a sentence, I feel I'm working too hard.

Professor Zero said...

Studies have been done on foreign language learners, to figure out in what order and at what rate they *actually* learn things, so that one can figure out how to assess them most reasonably, where it is useful to raise expectations and where it is useful to lower them. I am not an expert at this but I'll say it is interesting, and less stressful, to grade composition by ACTFL or ACTFL style guidelines than by those we had when I was a T.A. (which were, 10 errors of any kind per 100 words = 90%).

But: the goal still is to get people literate, not to excuse them for not being. And the reason spelling was regularized was so that we could all understand each other - and so that reading would be easier (apparently accent marks were also invented to make reading easier).

The_Myth said...

Welcome to the new age of illiteracy.

chek ur thezoruz at teh dooor.

P.S. Your proposed research study is just the sort of thing I'd want to do if I tried a doctoral program again.

dance said...

I'll work through bad spelling, and sometimes even lack of capitalization. But a long mess of text undifferentiated by paragraph breaks, and then also missing capitals? It could be perfectly spelled, and I'm still not reading it.

Not your (excellent) research project, but along similar lines: Stupid Filter, in which stupidity is defined by form, not content.

Bardiac said...

I don't worry about the occasional typo; we all get those when we're typing fast. But sentences that aren't because they don't have a verb even though they're longer than the opening to Paradise Lost, I stop reading. My time is too valuable to me to spend that way.

undine said...

Vague, I often give up, too, if capitals aren't used. As you say, it has to do with finding the beginnings of sentences, and the lack of caps is just an added barrier.

Professor Z, that's fascinating about the 10 errors/100 words/90% guidelines; I hadn't heard of that. And someone ought to tell the UK person what you said about the goal being so that we can all understand each other.

the_myth, it took me at least two tries to decipher "thezoruz," thus entirely proving your point. If anybody wants to do this study, I'd like to read it . . . or maybe read about it, since this is an era of lazy reading :).

dance, I forgot to add paragraphing, but that's even more crucial! I don't care whether the experts have "proven" that Real Writers Don't Use Topic Sentences or not; I'm still reading the first sentence, and, if the paragraph is 1000 words long, that's likely all I'm reading. Thanks for the link to StupidFilter.

bardiac: Well, I skip all sentences beginning "Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit" anyway :-). Seriously, when I come across those kinds of non-sentences, I feel cheated: all this struggle and no verb? A more charitable person than I would maybe conclude that the person was translating from Latin or German and just forgot to translate the verb at the end.