Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Smart People Are Getting Worse At Spelling

This is not a post about why dumb people are getting worse at spelling. There's lots of obvious culprits - the spreading of teenage text message LOLspeak, declining educational quality, feelgood 'everybody wins a prize!' teaching methods that decline to correct too many mistakes, lunatic academics who argue that insisting on correct spelling and grammar is horribly racist and elitist, etc. etc.etc.

No, what's less remarked on is the hidden decline in spelling knowledge among educated people. But you'll only see this in a very particular context - if you ask them to hand-write something that requires big words. Their typewritten work is getting better and better.

Once upon a time, people used to need to know how words were spelled. To write something wrong in a letter was embarrassing, and every correction you made was obvious too. The benefits in knowing the correct spelling the first time were significant.

Now, we instead train people to know that they have to use spell-check. This requires them to know how to have a good stab at the word, and to diligently check that their document doesn't have any red squiggly lines under any words. But this doesn't actually drill spelling.

The reality is that bad spelling in a document these days is a sign only of laziness or complete illiteracy. Grammar is still more of a filter, as grammar checkers are less sophisticated. But the test of 'does this document contain typos?' is now only a very weak signal of actual spelling ability.

Five minutes ago, I had to type the word 'accelerate', and I couldn't remember if it had one or two "c"s, and whether it had one or two "l"s. No worries! Just have a stab, and keep going through the combinations until you hit it.

But here's the problem - within 5 seconds, I'd forgotten what the answer was. And next time, I'm going to do the same thing. It's like using a GPS instead of a map - in theory, the more efficient system could be used as a tool to improve the learning process. In practice, it gets used as a substitute for the learning process.

Don't believe me? Try writing a hand-written letter to someone, and see how many times you find yourself stumbling over the correct spelling of a word. And this is only the mistakes you know you're making, let along the ones you don't! It's a sure-fire way to cure yourself of any hints of snobbery about how eloquent and precise your writing is.

Overall, I'm okay with this process - it's not like men are about to be thrust into the wilds of nature where no spell-checkers are available. This is certainly less problematic than the decline in mental arithmetic skills with the ubiquitiousness of calculators. There are a lot more situations where it's valuable to be able to do fast mental mathematics than to always have correct spelling.

Since nobody writes handwritten letters any more, there is only one case where you really see how bad people's spelling has gotten - handwritten signs. Very few people who are going to write a protest sign tend to type it in Word first. But they should:

Stop Vandaling Education

(image credit)

(when it's on 'know your meme', the time for image credits is pretty much over)

Everyone looks at these signs and thinks these people are unspeakable idiots. But this is the wrong lesson. I'm sure if either one had to send an email, it would be spelled just fine.

Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.


  1. Is it embarrassing that you wrote let along instead of let alone in a post about spelling and writing correctly?

    Keep up the good work Shylock!

  2. Snap-a-roony!

    Actually, that was clearly intended as an ironic comment on how anything that doesn't show up as a mistake on a spell-checker is ignored. No, really. :) That's why I've deliberately left it in there, your remark notwithstanding.

  3. "There's lots of obvious culprits"

    Are you saying "There is lots of...", or do you mean "There are lots of..."?

    Maybe you meant "There're lots of...", or am I making up words?

  4. Hmm, good point. Apparently I don't proof-read my stuff well enough - it's meant to be 'there are lots of obvious culprits'. Although "there're" doesn't sound right to me.

    The more you know...

  5. It's very colloquial to use "there's" when "there are" is correct (i.e., multiple subjects). It's an acceptable mistake because it's so ubiquitous, but out of all of my (very few) language pet peeves, it's the worst offender.

    I found this blog post because at the age of twenty-five my spelling has deteriorated so much that I'm starting to wonder if I need to start doing dictionary drills. It's really pitiful, especially because I do read as a past-time. I guess that by now I can recognize the words without paying much attention to the letters and their ordering.

    I think you're right- technology is the catalyst. Yeah, it won't really affect my life much, but I do feel like I've lost a skill. Ahwell. Good post on an interesting phenomenon.

  6. So that is it! That is the reason for my deteriorating spelling ability! Technology! I would have never guessed. But, I think you are right. And for a while there, I thought I was coming down with early Alzheimer's.

  7. I can really relate to this. I am an ESL instructor at a college, and within the past year or so, I have been struggling to correctly spell longish words on the board. I actually started doing some internet research as I was fearing brain deterioration, but I'm pretty sure it is the result of a spell-check and auto-correct dependency. (Even in this post, I was unsure about the spelling of "deterioration" and "dependency"... fixed with the red line but I doubt I'll remember for next time.)