Must we spell it out? You shouldn't abandon language's rules

I used to think the English language is dying slowly. Now I think it’s being assassinated.

 

There is no single suspect, but there are millions of accomplices. I don’t have all their names, so I’ll mention just one – Sugata Mitra, who should know better.

Mitra is a professor of educational technology at Britain’s Newcastle University (I’m not); he holds a Ph.D. in physics (I don’t); and in the 1980s he basically predicted the phenomenon of desktop publishing (I didn’t). He tends to be the biggest brain in the room.

So here’s what Mitra told a British education magazine earlier this year: “This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now.”

Soak that in: A world-renowned college professor openly saying that – in a world in which communication among people is booming like never before – grammar and spelling is “a bit unnecessary.”

Guards! Seize him!

Spelling is unnecessary, eh? Tell that to every single person who’s called, written, emailed or commented online about the tiniest mistake spotted in a newspaper.

One of the buzz phrases in the newspaper industry these days is “reader engagement” – the principle of getting people to regularly interact with our journalism. Want to know the quickest way to engage our smartest readers? Let a typo get in the paper – all of them will tell you immediately.

Try selling that “unnecessary spelling” argument to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Last month, a trader wanted to sell shares in another company, but instead accidentally entered the name of Israel Corp., the nation’s largest holding company. Because of
that typing error, the value of one of Israel’s largest companies instantly dropped 99 percent. Oopsie.

Say “spelling is unnecessary” to State Schools Superintendent and gubernatorial aspirant John Barge. The man in charge of educating Georgia’s children unveiled his Barge for Governor website last Tuesday – and, on the main page, misspelled the word “governor” by omitting the first “r.” Staffers quickly corrected the error – but not quickly enough.

When Georgia Regents University misspelled “college” on a handful of diplomas last month, our editorial board brushed it off as no big deal. Typos happen. Lord knows I agree.

But auto accidents also happen. Should we try to prevent them? Of course. Same with typos. But what Mitra seems to be advocating is the language equivalent of swerving all over the road and not buckling your seat belt.

It’s hard to write a column on this subject and not sound peevish. I help tidy people’s spelling and grammatical mistakes for a living, so when someone implies that what I’ve been doing for more than 20 years is “a bit unnecessary” – well, it kind of stings.

It’s like if you’re an accountant, and your boss calls you in his office and says, “This whole numbers and math thing is a bit unnecessary. We’re replacing it with a system of pointing and grunting.”

You feel like one of the last defenders of the fort, staving off the barbarians at the gate – and the barbarians are armed with dangling participles, and lack the ability to discern the difference between “who” and “whom.”

Those are the kinds of folks on Mitra’s side of the argument – those open-mouthed gum-chewers texting “OMG u srsly?” on their smartphones.

But it’s not just them. I blame advertising, too. I didn’t think Apple Computers’ grammar could get worse than its motto “Think different” until it rolled out a new iPod in 2008 by calling the product the “funnest iPod ever.”

The first time I saw a “Got milk?” billboard, the only thing that kept me from changing it to “Have milk?” was the lack of a long-enough ladder.

Other infractions are so ubiquitous you simply have to accept them – such as stomaching the “10 items or less” sign in every supermarket when you know perfectly well it should be “10 items or fewer.”

I knew an editor who risked apoplexy whenever she encountered the word “preheat,” as in preheating an oven: “You don’t preheat an oven – you heat it. How can you heat something before you heat it!?”

Don’t get me started on how “flammable” and inflammable” mean the same thing.

That brings me to the word “literally,” and dictionary publishers Merriam-Webster and Macmillan have broken my heart. Recently they expanded their definitions of “literally” to mean its exact opposite. According to them, it now can mean both “actually” and “figuratively.”

Years ago I heard someone on the radio talk about an Augusta commissioner “literally beating a dead horse.” I had to laugh, envisioning this local politician actually flogging a carcass in the middle of the commission chamber.

Now I’m not laughing. Literally.

English is going to evolve whether we like it or not, but for Pete’s sake, it shouldn’t devolve. British author Blake Morrison said, “A culture that doesn’t care about editing is a culture that doesn’t care about writing. And that has to be bad.” I agree.

If you think otherwise, I’m sure you’ll tell me. You can write or type your response, or feel free to point and grunt.

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