Spelling Matters

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How Ridiculous

Rediculous – Results 1 – 10 of about 3,800,000 forrediculous.

It is ridiculous that such an obvious misspelling has become soprolific (correctness by repeated assertion), yet it’s a greatexample of how contagious an incorrect spelling can be: Given thatlanguage is largely learned by example, it is inevitable that anendless exposure to malformed spelling will eventually infect thelanguage of others, gathering a widening net of victims.

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This is more of a problem now more than ever, given that many ofus have supplanted – or entirely replaced – the professionalwriting in our lives (newspapers, books, professional papers) withthe amateur writing of bloggers and forum posters: The “good”influences – carefully authored, carefully edited professionalwriting – have given way to carelessly hashed-out entries bytime-pressured bloggers and marginally-literate forum posters, in adomain where the accepted rules of netiquette strongly discouragepointing out spelling or grammar mistakes.

Those who point out errors in grammar or spelling are quicklymarginalized as “Grammar Nazis“.Ignorance rules the day, and the social pressure encouraging goodspelling and grammar has dramatically declined.

English Is Non-Trivial, But Spelling is Standardized

English is a very difficult language, with a tremendous array ofconflicting influences, and a byzantine array of specialized rulesand conditions.

It is, for instance, very difficult to conform to all normsof grammar given that many of them are subjective and conflicting(and many self-appointed gurus have themselves made embarrassing errors). I have absolutely no doubt that thisentry, for example, has over a dozen real or subjective grammarproblems: From the incorrect placement of a comma, to theoverzealous use of a compound adjective, to the use of a colonwhere a dash would suffice.

I certainly make no claim of perfection. Where I find that I’vemade an error (and I heartily welcome emails to this effect),I try to correct them as quickly as possible.

Nonetheless, spelling is standardized (with minor regionalvariations), so unless one is intentionally trying to extend oradapt the language, some effort should be exerted to check thestandards references to ensure that one’s usage isconformant, just as one would ensure that their CSS or HTML wascompliant with the pertinent standards.

The Cost

The impact of the continued exposure to incorrect spelling andgrammar can be extraordinary to observe. I’ve seen people correcteddozens of times, yet rediculous is so ingrained in their mind thatthey just can’t break the habit. Soon enough other participants areperpetuating the misspelling, with the forum slowly diverging fromcorrect English into some bizarre forum-localizedlingo-ignoramus.

It might seem harmless, but this incorrect spelling startsinfecting their professional writings (emails, instant messages,documents, signs, business cards – a domain where the laissez-faireattitude of the online world isn’t acceptable), making them lookignorant and careless. That’s if the fear of the same hasn’tdiscouraged written discourse altogether (which is sadly verycommon. I’ve encountered plenty of professional acquaintances whoavoid the written word like the plague).

It can even reduce the comprehension efficiency of writtenmaterials, as the reader’s brain tries to rationalize the correctspelling on the paper with what they have stored in their memorycells.

It reduces general literacy.

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If a reader’s first exposure to analagous (analogous) or ancilliary (ancillary) are in a hastily written blog entry orforum post, naturally they’re going to adopt the incorrect variant,perpetuating it to other entries and posts. Like a virus themisspelling infects new victims.

Of course it should be noted that language is indeed a “living”thing, and it does evolve and change over time – the English wespeak today differs greatly from the English of yore – but the sortof ignorance that I’m describing has nothing to do with extendingor adapting the language. Instead it’s simple contagiouslaziness.

Showing Regard For Readers

Good form or not, I am regularly going back and rewording oldentries for improved clarity and readability, and occasionally evento correct spelling mistakes that made it under the radar (I havesome eagle-eyed readers that very helpfully point out some of theseerrors. Rather than being irritated by the “grammar nazis”, I amvery appreciative to have the extra sets of eyeballs).

I do this primarily to ease consumption by readers: Whilethe initial entry might have been rushed when too little time wasavailable – but I thought the information or perspective wereuseful for someone – the entries live on and see far moretraffic over time than at the outset. A correction here and there,and the refinement and rewording of a paragraph or two to make itmore clear and concise, takes me a few moments, yet it saves dozensor hundreds of readers time in the future (and improves theircomprehension of the content).

I consider the effort very worthwhile.

Furthermore, I try to run all entries through an up to datespell-checker before the initial publishing. To make the processmore palatable, I have trained the spell-checker with allof my domain-specific terminology (the false-negative rate ofspell-checkers is one of the primary reasons most people avoidthem).

I don’t want to appear ignorant by misspelling a common word,and I don’t want to save myself a little time at the cost of everyreader’s time. I also don’t want to pollute the vocabulary ofreaders with believable misspellings.

Industry Solutions

Just as one eagerly sticks a W3C validation banner on their pagedeclaring their compliance with some level of specification, itwould be intriguing to advocate a “spelling and grammar” standardmark. One that simply declares that the author actually cares, anddoes exert some effort to meet some minimal level of correctness inspelling and grammar. It would be a public sign indicating thatthey are open and thankful for comments and corrections regardingthe same.

Furthermore, it would be advantageous if themajor search engines – including blog aggregators andsearch engines – allowed one to refine results by grammarand spelling, optionally scoring academically correct contenthigher in the results. While sloppy spelling is no guarantee thatthe content isn’t of value, there is a noteworthy correlationbetween the care and concern put into the spelling and grammar ofan entry and the value of the actual content contained within: Ifsomeone couldn’t bother spell-checking their entry, the factualcontent of their entry naturally has to come into question aswell.

In the forum and blogging world, it would be beneficial if moretools supported convenient and efficient automatic spell-checking(the fact that no major browser has incorporated native TEXTAREAspell-checking thus far is a travesty. Any of them couldhave a killer feature if they simply added Word-like squigglyunderlining of suspect words, with easy alternative corrections).As it is, many tools have nothing at all, and the few that do oftenhost a ridiculously unintuitive, hacked-in partial solution.

Let’s clean up English on the internet.

[TRAFFIC NOTE: This story, one of the few generalinterest posts I’ve made on here, has appeared on reddit, sending quite a few users thisway. For those who’ve actually read this far, if you foundthis entry interesting I would appreciate if you could give anarrow up toit on reddit. Alternately if you think this is a dud, pleasegive it an arrow down. Thanks!]