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Does Spelling Still Matter?

Red "p" and caret above "aplication" in black text. The tip of a red pen is shown drawing the caret.

Former colleague Ann Handley wrote an article on five common usage mistakes that people commonly make. In it, she said:

In an age of texting and Twitter, does grammar matter?…The truth is, no. It dznt always matter, unless u r anal. (Which I am, of course. But that’s a choice each of us is free to make, at least in regard to grammar.)

Reading her words, I cringed, because as an editor I know the value good grammar and usage can have. Ann went on to say that “good grammar and usage do indeed matter generally, because as a business leader, colleague and boss, it’s important for you to communicate clearly, and to speak well.” Ah! Context, then, is important.

On social media and in texting, we follow grammar and usage rules more loosely. But when we need our message understood precisely or need to impress someone, following grammar and usage more closely help us achieve those goals. It helps ensure the reader doesn’t have to decipher your words to get at the meaning.

Good writing matters.

Good writing includes spelling. The issue isn’t the use of abbreviations; even the most formal writing uses some abbreviations. The issue is the consistent use of accepted abbreviations that readers can understand or at least look up in a dictionary.

U for you is commonly recognized, as is r for are. But what about the ones we make up on the fly?

Lit Time: Duncan’s Poowooms

Letters are arbitrary symbols for the sounds we make. You could argue that since they are arbitrary, spelling shouldn’t count, and for hundreds of years it didn’t. If our ancestors could survive on fluid spelling, why can’t we?

One reason is that the world is a smaller place these days. Millions of people around the world speak English. But even though we may speak the same language, how we pronounce that language can vary greatly (letting alone the grammar and usage differences in various Englishes). You don’t have to have different accents or come from a different culture, though, to sound out words differently.

Here’s a poem written by my six-year-old, Duncan:

Wuts apona
1 man cood
Only caw
T to 4

In kindergarten (which he completes today), spelling doesn’t count. The idea is to practice sounding out words and writing them down. These kindergarteners are also memorizing sight words (words they know how to read because they’ve memorized them), learning the different sounds letters make, and starting to sound out words as they read. It’s a system that has worked well at our school. Both my children came out of kindergarten as beginning readers.

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But what would happen if Duncan were to continue to sound out words rather than learn to spell? Here’s another poem, written at the same time:

Apon a tuym
Was a prsi
N w sed
More books
Dat is el he
The end

When Duncan asked me to type up his poems so he could create a book, I suggested that we should type them as he had spelled them and then spelled correctly. He had to struggle a bit to read them all to me. These were his soundings-out, his versions of how these words were spelled, and he couldn’t always make them sound the same again. Not surprisingly, the words he did spell right were all from his sight word list. Here’s how we revised the first poem (I kept his original line breaks as much as possible):

Once upon a
One man could
Only count
To four

And the second poem:

Upon a time
Was a person
Who said,
“More books!”
That is all he
The end

In the first poem, “once upon a time” is written “wuts apona taym.” In the second, it’s written as “wunts apon a tuym.” Even in one writing session, Duncan didn’t hear all the words the same way twice. True, he’s in kindergarten and doesn’t have a lot of experience yet. But if we grownups had never studied spelling, would we hear things differently too?

Yes, spelling is arbitrary. Yes, it’s work to spell correctly. But spelling matters. I loved Duncan’s poems … once I understood them.

Good writing lets the author’s meaning come through, whether it applies writing rules strictly or more loosely. Knowing when—and how—to bend the rules is part of good writing.

Even within texting and social media.

A version of this article originally published on The Writing Resource in June 2010.


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