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A Case For And Against Proper Spelling


When we speak to one another, word order counts. For example, I'm speaking to you right now in pretty conventional word order - subject before verb before object. But what if I took what I just said, and I moved the words around like this: For example, now speaking pretty, I'm conventional, verb, object before, and now you order before subject to word.

Maybe you followed that. But is the concept really different when it comes to spelling? Recently, a debate broke out between Wired columnist Anne Trubek and Lee Simmons, a copy editor there. Trubek said, our fixation on correct spelling is out of date.

She thinks it's time for cellphone autocorrect programs and word-processing spell checkers - and to show a little respect for the growing importance of text lingo, and include commonly used abbreviations and other text talk. But, in a rebuttal, Wired copy editor Lee Simmons argued that kids started this text talk purposely so their parents would not understand them, and it excludes the people who are less familiar with it. He says that standards are what make communication and understanding possible.

We want to hear your view on this. Has technology changed your ideas about the vital role of spelling in our lives? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Well, Anne Trubek joins me now from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland, Ohio. Anne, thanks for coming on.

ANNE TRUBEK: Thanks for having me.

DONVAN: And Lee Simmons joins us via Skype from the Wired offices in San Francisco. Lee, thanks for coming on.

LEE SIMMONS: Sure. My pleasure.

DONVAN: OK. So here are the rules. A mini debate - you're each going to have one minute to state your argument. And when you hear this sound...


DONVAN: ...that means you have to stop talking. Your time will be up. We're going to do this - you'll each get two rounds of a minute each; total of four rounds. So you get to state your main arguments and then we will circle back, and we'll open up the discussion for callers. OK? All right. Anne, you're ready to go?


DONVAN: Your minute starts right now.


TRUBEK: OK. So my basic argument is that if you look at the history of the English language, a lot of people think there are sort of immutable laws that are, you know, God-given or laws of nature. But actually, it's a bunch of manmade prescriptions and guidelines that change over time.

And right now, with this new genre of text speak, we're seeing a lot of changes happening in the English language. And my argument is that we should evolve our rules about what's proper and improper along with the changes that are happening right now with the language.

DONVAN: You beat the clock.

TRUBEK: Oh, yes!


DONVAN: Lee Simmons, your minute starts now.

SIMMONS: OK. Well, I would - in my opinion, you know, you can treat the spelling rules as arbitrary conventions and still not come to the conclusion that we need to throw them out the window. Now, in truth, you know, I would argue that those - yeah, the spelling rules that we have are not entirely arbitrary. They're not phonetic. And no one's more painfully aware of that than I am, as the father of a 3-year-old that I'm trying to - whom I'm trying to teach the alphabet to. You know, I say T - ta, ta, ta, for train; and I get to C and can only think of cat. And the look on his face says it all.

But it's not meant to be a phonetic system. The spellings that we have contain a treasure trove of information - of history about the origins of our words, about the root meanings and so forth, and about the cultural backgrounds, about the different languages that - for English...

DONVAN: OK. Lee Simmons, your first minute is up. Time for rebuttal, Anne Trubek.

TRUBEK: OK, my rebuttal.

DONVAN: Anne Trubek, your rebuttal starts now.

TRUBEK: OK. I agree with Lee that English spelling is fascinating, if you study etymology and orthography and understand how these words - like "thought," for instance - are spelled in these strange ways. But it's also true that the idea of having one way to spell a word, and only one way, is sort of a product of the Enlightenment. And before the 18th century, when we didn't have dictionaries - and there was also no standard spelling, and there were many variants.

If you go to the OED - the Oxford English Dictionary - which is probably, you know, the definitive dictionary of the English language, they'll list many spelling - many ways to spell a word, and they'll describe them as variants, not a right and a wrong. So I think we can have both. We can have the history, and we can have new variations.

DONVAN: Once again, you beat the clock. OK, Lee Simmons, your last chance to rebut. Your minute starts now.

SIMMONS: OK. I would say this. I would say spelling rules, for what they are, they're all about making communication easier. If I could use an analogy, the Internet itself is essentially a set of standards - hardware and software standards - that make it possible for people with different devices to communicate. It creates a universal platform. And I would argue that our English spelling system, for all its flaws, provides just such a universal platform.

The only purpose of spelling rules is to make communication easier. And most people manage to learn the rules in high school, and there's always some tough words you've got to look up. But it makes reading a transparent process.

And that, I think, is a great benefit of having standards. We can argue about whether we ought to reform the standards, make the system more logical, but I would argue that the standards themselves are something that we need to preserve.


DONVAN: OK, end of debate. Lee Simmons, you used all of your time. Now, we're going to open it to discussion from our callers - to bounce off of your arguments. But I want to start that off by going to you, Anne Trubek, and bringing back to you part of what I think Lee is saying; is that if the words - if the spelling isn't very consistent, that we could end up being very, very confused - often. What about that?

TRUBEK: Yeah. And I think, you know, I absolutely understand that. One thing I'd say is if you read, say, Samuel Johnson - you know, great English writer, 18th century - if you read some of his prose, it's not going to be transparent. There are many ways to write English properly and also have it not be transparent because our language does change over time.

But the other point that I want to make is that, you know, I'm not saying, you know, devise your own, new way to spell a word, and put it out there - and great. I'm saying more along the lines of, we're crowd-sourcing new ways to write and new ways to spell.

And as some of these textisms(ph) take on and become more and more common - if you just think of - if you saw LOL in an email 10 years ago, you would have stopped and, like Lee said, it wouldn't have been transparent. Maybe we weren't clear on what was going on. But today, I would say a lot of us don't pause when we see that LOL. It is now clear and transparent.

And that is what I'm arguing will happen with more and more text speak. And so rather than fight it or see it as a degradation of language, we should sort of celebrate it and say hey, look at how language evolves.

DONVAN: OK. Lee, let me put this question to you, from some of what Anne is saying. She is saying language is moving and living all the time - and I know that you don't disagree with that. But I think what she's also saying is, it's moving and changing a lot faster - a lot faster than it used to be and therefore, this - sort of - we're going to have to resist it, isn't quite reflective of the times that we live in. What about that?

SIMMONS: Well, I agree that it's - spelling is changing. That's - we should say that's a descriptive fact. The question is whether we should encourage that prescriptively, if you will. I guess, I would argue that that can become a slippery slope, where people constantly have to think about how they spell things in different circumstances - because I know Anne is not suggesting that we should, for instance - Wired magazine should just spell words in whatever way strikes our whim at the moment.

So we're talking, then, about certain forms of communication where spelling rules might be loosened. and others where they might be - where we might expect to maintain established spellings. And I would argue that that gets rather complicated.

DONVAN: Yeah. Well, I can see that neither of you are so deep in your corner, as we perceive you. There's middle ground, and you're willing to circle each other in.


DONVAN: We've got some emails coming in, and phone calls lined up. But I just want to share an email from Ingrid in Sherwood, Wisconsin, who writes: I do all my writing with MS Word. I find myself not only going along with its spelling suggestions, but also with its grammar. My writing is beginning to sound more like MS Word than me.


DONVAN: Lindsey in Denver writes: How are we going to play Words with Friends or Scrabble without spelling standards?


DONVAN: Let's go to some calls. I want to bring in Robin, in Richmond, Virginia. Robin, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ROBIN: Hi. I guess my biggest concern is, where do we go next? Do we let kids just do math with calculators since we already have calculators? You know, we still have these wonderful, wonderful books from our past - you know, our stories and - that we should be able to read with these kids. And if every kid only knows the number 2 to express two, to and too, where - how are they going to be able to look at all of this wonderful classic literature that we have? They won't have that. They won't have access to it because they only know the short talk.

DONVAN: Well, at the same time, though, the language has been moving for quite - I mean, a lot of us find Shakespeare not particularly easy to sit and watch because of the language, and we have to enjoy the costumes and the spectacle. But I take your point. At least 20th - you know, something more than the last hundred years; it would be a shame if only five years from now, kids couldn't read it because they didn't know how to spell and read.

ROBIN: Yeah, there needs to be a foundation first. I don't have much of problem with them using it later on. But my mom does teach it - does the SOL testing in Pennsylvania. And when she's grading papers, she's not allowed to adjust grammatical errors if the kids are using the number 2 for all of their tos.

DONVAN: Really?

ROBIN: That's how far we've come, yeah.

DONVAN: What about the number 4 for the letter - word for?


ROBIN: I - probably not. Well, you could probably do 4 ever, I would assume.

DONVAN: I find that even more offensive. Thanks very much for your call. I want to bring in Kathleen from Honolulu. Hi, Kathleen, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KATHLEEN: Hello. I have the same concern that we've heard from other folks regarding - if we use technology, if we become too dependent on technology to tell us how to spell, we lose our knowledge of the word histories. We lose our ability to look back through time, and see how people have been moving around the globe, and sharing words and sharing language, in creating what we have now.

DONVAN: Anne, that sounds like a challenge to your point of view.



KATHLEEN: ...I think, well, I'm also an editor, so we do tend to care about these things, maybe more than some folks. But I think that we have such an amazing history that we don't want to lose, and it's so rich and diverse. And any time that things are standardized, on the one hand, you lose variety..

DONVAN: Right...

KATHLEEN: ...but you also preserve.

DONVAN: What do you think, Anne?

TRUBEK: I mean, I think that it's very hard for most us to read old English right now, so we already have these examples of being - of having aspects of language lost to us. And there is a loss, but there is also a gain with the sort of creativity and punning and rebuses that a lot of these textisms - are created, and we have a history of creating these. You know, the term IOU - which doesn't cause many of us to, you know, stop and say oh, that's horrible - is, you know, really a textism that was, I think - 17th or 18th century is when it was created.

So I think that we're better adept at shifting and understanding different layers of meaning and history than maybe we give ourselves credit to. And I think that kids are more adept at code-switching - as switching from 2, the number 2, to T-W-O, than a lot of educators or teachers or parents give them credit for.

DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, on NPR News. I want to bring in Nathan from Pensacola, Florida. Hi, Nathan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

NATHAN: Hey, how are you? You know, my big concern here is, you know, I have dyslexia. And so for me, as I was learning to read and I was learning to adapt, I really needed those rules and rubrics instead of, you know, just spelling the way that I wanted to. I mean, it made sense in my head.

And I'm afraid that as we begin to change, and we begin to adapt too much, that it's going to create a sense of not having those boundaries for people like myself, who needed them.

DONVAN: Actually, a very, very focused example of what Lee Simmons is saying; that it's about communication because of the consistency. Lee, are you still there?

SIMMONS: Yeah...

NATHAN: Yeah, and I think that that is a concern, you know? And if you read "1984," you know, that that was the subject matter of what happens when we simplify talk to the point that we also lose emotion.

DONVAN: Well, thank you very much. I want to take, also, back to Lee an argument from an email that just came in from Stanley, who writes: We have what are believed to be 25 authentic autographs of William Shakespeare. Given those 25 opportunities, Shakespeare spells his name 18 different ways. So Lee Simmons, what does that make Shakespeare, the trendsetter we thought he was - or just a bad speller?


SIMMONS: Actually, this is an area I know a lot about. I moonlight as an actor and have done a lot of Shakespeare. We always, in starting a new production, spend a full week sitting at desks before we get on our feet, trying to piece out what Shakespeare meant in this or that passage. And one of the great difficulties is that his spellings are not standardized. It makes it very difficult, and there are debates about certain passages in Shakespeare that have never been resolved in all these hundreds of years.

Now, on the other side, against that, Shakespeare - why do we still perform Shakespeare? Because he was a genius. And those random - those spellings, those various spellings are not entirely random. A strong argument could be made that Shakespeare spelled words differently in different circumstances, to provide different nuances of meaning. So...

TRUBEK: Just like kids when they're texting.



TRUBEK: Sorry, Lee, I had to jump in.


SIMMONS: You know, I think there is something to be said there for creative use of language, and I don't think we ever want to be so rigid in our application of rules that we prevent that, and prevent language from evolving. I would still argue that in the background, it's a tremendous benefit to us, as a society and a culture, to have those standardized spellings; to have some standards, whatever they might be.

DONVAN: Let me see how you both feel about this. We have an email from Patty, who writes: I am great-grandmother who got my B.S. in journalism in 2000. My profs were sticklers on grammar. I think writing is dependent on the audience and the medium. Please forgive my spelling as texting wasn't easy for me. Please is spelled P-L-S. Great is spelled G-R-8-T. And easy for me, not F-O-R, but the number 4.

I don't know who wins in this debate, thanks to the way that Patty responded to you, because she took both courses in that. But I want to thank both of you, Lee Simmons and Anne Trubek, for taking the time, debating in good faith, and giving us a lot of fun as well as something to think about.

SIMMONS: You're very welcome.

TRUBEK: Thanks so much for having us.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much. This TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.