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.

Comments (25) Add comment
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seenitB4
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seenitB4 09/08/13 - 07:05 am
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Got a dime?

Hah...You have a point. :)

effete elitist liberal
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effete elitist liberal 09/08/13 - 07:24 am
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Please clarify, Joe....

Joe, you quote Mitra saying "grammar and spelling...THEY ARE skills" as though "grammar and spelling" are plural. You say "grammar and spelling IS 'a bit unnecessary'" as though "grammar and spelling" is singular. Who's right. Joe? Later you speak of "Apple Computers' grammar," making a possessive of the plural noun "Computers." Is that correct, or should it be "Apple Computer's grammar"? I thought the old name of the company was Apple Computer....

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/08/13 - 07:54 am
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Interesting Subject

I'm not saying anything, but the Chronicle editorials have certainly had plentiful grammatical errors, the stories even more so. Okay, I did say something.

The professor's thoughts are interesting. I get texts that have the new abbreviations. I'm also reminded to use them by some when I try to get too wordy (imagine that) via texts. I predict with the amazing growth of words being sent via various internet gadgets another version of English will develop. But don't worry, official, tedious grammar will stay with us for many kinds of writing, including editorials.

effete elitist liberal
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effete elitist liberal 09/08/13 - 08:25 am
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RM1

Yes, ACES's editorials do have grammar and punctuation errors from time to time. ACES should be particularly embarrassed if and when such errors pop up in an editorial piece about the importance of proper grammar and correct punctuation, don't you think?

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/08/13 - 08:57 am
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EEL

Effete, you were absolutely correct noting the Apple error. He made a mistake with a company name, exactly as he was pointing out had been done with the Israeli company. The other example I found borderline. He was quoting and then made his own statement.

I agree about the errors in the editorials. At one period of about two weeks when I was ticked at them, I would find and point out at least one error a day. Some may remember. It was hilarious. I'm not bragging though, I'm sure they could find MORE than an error a day in my comments.

Joe should keep in mind that pot calling the kettle black thing.

effete elitist liberal
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effete elitist liberal 09/08/13 - 09:38 am
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Joe

Joe???

Darby
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Darby 09/08/13 - 10:28 am
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KSL
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KSL 09/08/13 - 01:34 pm
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Eel is not perfect. She

Eel is not perfect. She missed the split infinitive.

effete elitist liberal
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effete elitist liberal 09/08/13 - 03:35 pm
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KSL

I did see the split infinitive. That is a rule which is not much applied these days, which is why I did not mention it. Standards of correctness do change over time, inevitably, and careful writers have to decide which "old ways" are worth fighting for, and which are not.

deestafford
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deestafford 09/08/13 - 03:35 pm
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This push to do away with or downsize grammar and its

associated cousins is another example of the attempt by the "smart ones" to change and do away with structure or discipline in as many aspects of life as they can.

Do you recall a few years ago the feds mandated the lettering on the street signs needed to be changed the new computer age people had
trouble reading signs with all capital letters or a mixture of capital and lower case letters...I can't remember which it was. I just remember it was another example of them thinking we're stupid.

Not only is grammar not being enforced, handwriting is not even being taught in some schools. As a result, there are children graduating from school who when looking at cursive think they are looking at a foreign language.

Anything traditional is evil and bad in the statist's eyes and needs to be eliminated.

effete elitist liberal
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effete elitist liberal 09/08/13 - 03:38 pm
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Darby

You should, and I welcome your attention. Just be sure to read what I say, not simply how correctly I say it!

effete elitist liberal
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effete elitist liberal 09/08/13 - 03:43 pm
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deestafford

I know what you mean. For some people it's street signs. For me it's
run-on sentences: "Do you recall a few years ago...."

peter mare
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peter mare 09/08/13 - 04:40 pm
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What about the thousands of misspellings in the dictionaries?

WIth all due respect, why should I be surprised that the chief editor would go ballistic when someone even suggests to be a bit laxer with spelling and grammar? His job depends on it! That's why!

My job as a teacher is to teach the system that you love so much, a system that is fraught with at least one hundred thousands misspellings! Why is the editor not upset about that? (Again, his job depends on it!)

Everyone knows that the English spelling system is a mess. If it were a car, it wouldn't sell! In this scenario, the buyer would be blamed for buying the car, complaining about the faulty parts, and crashing the car even!

Mr. Editor, when are you going to write about something that really matters? There are good rules and there are bad rules. I hope you do not conform to all rules. Should the people in North Korea? There are 91 spelling rules in English (twice as many as in better languages)! Let's clean things up a little, shall we? There are about 200 ways to represent 43 phonemes (sounds) in English! That's about 150 too many ways! Other BETTER languages have no more than 40 ways! Maybe it is not the people who are stupid, but it is the language that is!


More info: http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/english-spelling-s...

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/08/13 - 05:52 pm
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Peter Mare, that's a thought

Peter Mare, that's a thought provoking comment. Thanks.

Bizkit
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Bizkit 09/08/13 - 07:29 pm
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Most college text books are

Most college text books are rich in errors. I think technology is creating a new cultural shorthand that will be used despite the efforts of educators to teach proper english. When you receive illiterate emails from students begging for a better grade it is really disheartening. The students are so caught up in attaining a goal they seem to forget that you have to work to attain knowledge related to their goal so they can be proficient at it.

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 08:35 pm
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To Split, or Not to Split

Thank you, KSL, for bringing up the split infinitive. It one of my pet peeves, and I try hard to avoid using them. Please, please, please — writing instructors and young people — please place that adverb in front of or behind the infinitive. Or, sometimes better, eliminate the adverb altogether.

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 08:37 pm
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Errors

Bizkit posted:

Most college text books are rich in errors.

Yes — some spelling, some grammatical, but most factual.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/08/13 - 08:45 pm
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Split Infinitive Discussion

LL, I've seen the split infinitive discussion in other places and the consensus seems to be it's actually not a firm rule of English as it is with Latin. Most modern sources I see don't consider a split infinitive as improper. I seem to recall one of our former editor friends making a point about split infinitives being acceptable. In this day of texting, I don't think anyone is going to worry about splits.

Little Lamb
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Little Lamb 09/08/13 - 09:19 pm
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Pet Peeve

Well, RM, like I said — it's a pet peeve of mine, and I'll worry about it till I die.

Likewise, how about the gerund — I was taught that the gerund takes a possessive formulation. But most writers today use the nominative. The nominative rings creepy to me. Let's hold out for the possessive and speak out loudly against the nominative.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/09/13 - 09:41 am
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From The Other Editorial Column Today

"A 2011 Pew Research report reveals that 48 percent of Americans say this is the greatest country in the world, but only 32 percent of young adults – so-called “millennials” – can say the same."

First, I'd say "millennials" should be capitalized. Next, the sentence is not logical. The point is only 32 percent of Millennials believe America is the greatest country. It's not that only 32 percent of Millennials can say it.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 09/08/13 - 09:29 pm
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Nominative Gerunds

LL, like "She resents you being smarter than she is."

Your worrying about gerunds is interesting. Heh, just had to show I could do one right.

Darby
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Darby 09/08/13 - 10:17 pm
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"You should, and I welcome your attention.

Just be sure to read what I say, not simply how correctly I say it!"

.
EEL - I'm not about to point out your grammatical errors. I'm relatively certain that you make fewer than I.

Not that I don't try my best.

On the other hand, I prefer the repartee and the friendly attempts to gently poke an antagonist or a political opponent in the eye. Virtually of course.

That's much more fun than nit-picking. And a much more satisfying use of my time.

rebellious
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rebellious 09/08/13 - 11:24 pm
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Is there

a difference between banal and anal? I guess perspective comes into play. Not being a writer by trade, I tend to look for the fluidity of the written words to convey a thought. Wouldn't know where a dangling participle is at if I saw it. I do, however, agree with Hotchkiss in that we are seeing a degradation of the written word which is beginning to impact the conveyance of the thought.

Split Infinitive......My oh My, the humanity of it all...

C U in the a.m. LOL

Darby
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Darby 09/09/13 - 10:26 am
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I, for one resent the grammatical terrorists

who lie in wait to pounce upon those who would dare split an infinitive or imprudently dangle a provocative participle.

On the other hand, I cringe when I see an obviously misspelled word, given the abundance of spell checkers available to us all. Particularly if it's a common word frequently used, polysyllabic or not.

There's a good example, I originally spelled polysyllabic with one L, the kind of mistake I frequently make. Hate it when I do that.

That may not be the best example, given that it's a word that I don't use that much, and might not have noticed it in someone else's post, but still.......

Recently, someone on this forum wrote the word paradise as "paradize".

dusry
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dusry 09/09/13 - 12:24 pm
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I agree

As a former editor and journalist, I agree wholeheartedly. In my current occupation, I face these challenges on a daily basis as I read, create and edit documents with my colleagues. Finally, as a mother of a high school student, I cringe at grammatically incorrect texts, tweets and status updates filled with misspelled words.

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