Why Bother with Spelling and Grammar Rules?

by Tina Blue
November 19, 2000

This article developed out of a very long comment I wrote in response to an article by a former Themestream contributor, in which she was responding to those who had criticized her (often quite unkindly!) for spelling errors in her writing.

First of all, I want to say that I believe she has a point--a lot of the criticism directed at her really was condescending and mean-spirited. I also think that she is part of a generation that really never was taught to spell, and for whom the importance of spelling never was emphasized.

If one doesn't master the intricacies of English spelling by the time one is about ten or twelve years old, it is not likely ever to happen, so it serves no real purpose to berate someone for the fact that no one made sure he learned to spell in elementary school. That is something that we must blame the schools for, since children of that tender age cannot be responsible for knowing what matters in their education and what does not. It isn't fair to tell them spelling doesn't matter until they are too old to really master it, and then start criticizing or punishing them when they are at an age when they aren't ever going to master the subject.

But I am an English teacher (college level), so I do like to see writing that is mechanically correct. If you have read my article "Why Does She Keep Saying 'Grammar and Usage'?" you know I don't like to see people use "correctness" to bully or bash other people, or to make themselves feel superior. I would hate for someone to be afraid to write for fear of making a mistake. I think a lot of people are silenced by precisely such fear.

On the other hand, I do think correctness is something we should aspire to, even if none of us ever perfectly achieves it--and none of us does, you know! (Yes, "none" is a singular pronoun in this clause--"not one"--in case you were wondering about my verb choice.)

The English language is incredibly non-phonetic. As I have already mentioned, it is not an easy language to learn to spell, and anyone who hasn't mastered English spelling by the age of about twelve probably never will get it quite right. (Notice that spelling-bee champs are all between the ages of 9 and 14.) A lot of perfectly intelligent and very well-educated people hurt themselves on the sharp edges of English spelling.

But spell-checkers can be used to clean up some of the more glaring errors--even though spell-checkers are idiots-savants, and will pass anything that is a real word, even if it isn't the real word you had in mind.  Still, the extra minute or two it takes to run a spell-check on a short article is, I think, a gesture of politeness and respect. When we make the corrections we can easily make, we are honoring our readers, saying that they are worth that extra time to us. It's sort of like dressing up a bit and combing our hair to show respect to someone we are about to meet. Even those of us who are normally very casual in our attire care enough about some people and some situations to go a little bit out of our way to signal our sense that they are worth that extra effort.

I tell my college students that they wouldn't come to see me in my office with a booger hanging from their nose, because they wouldn't want me to think they were that careless of their appearance--or of my sensibilities. I am very lenient toward hard to fix spelling or grammar problems, as long as I get the sense the student is trying, rather than just blowing it off as not worth his time or effort.

But I don't like to see spelling errors that a two-minute spell-check could easily have corrected. Why should I get stuck cleaning up the messes they don't want to spend their time cleaning up? Paraphrasing noted science fiction author Marian Zimmer Bradley, I tell them they should not harness a dragon to cook their hamburgers. I should be used to help them fix real problems that can't be fixed without my help. My time and energy (and patience) is a limited resource, and it is unwise to waste me on corrections a spell-checker can make.

Besides, it's silly to unnecessarily insult the person who is grading your essay. (Sure, it's an insult: "It's not worth my time to make this essay readable, but your time isn't worth much, so you can go ahead and do the proofreading that I really can't be bothered to do.")

Even though I do understand that spelling and grammar are not well taught in our schools these days, and I am sympathetic toward those who struggle with such things, I have to admit that frequent spelling errors that could be easily corrected by running a quick spell-check affect me the way fingernails on a chalkboard affect some people. I bump into a lot of that sort of thing on the net and in my classes, and it kind of gets to me.

Mostly I think it's my age (50)--even non-English teachers of my generation shiver at some of the errors that don't even faze younger people. (By the way, in case you're wondering, "faze" is the correct spelling. "Phase" means something different.)

One other thing to keep in mind: If we all go our own way where spelling and grammar are concerned, eventually we will all be writing mutually unintelligible idiolects (a "dialect" spoken or written by only one person). If you don't believe that would make it hard to actually read what someone writes, then try reading an article where the author either carelessly or deliberately misspells many words, and see how much less smoothly and quickly you read it than you would read another article with more standardized spelling.  (A good sample would be anything written in thick dialect.)

I think writers who are not necessarily specialists in language and who make no pretense of being anything other than exuberant enthusiasts should be treated respectfully, even if they do make some mistakes in spelling and grammar.  But I also think they should at least try to clean up the easy spelling errors before posting or submitting their work to a wider audience.
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