Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Spelling and intelligence

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Lately it's become increasingly evident that my attitude to spelling and grammar evokes an exceptional response from people. Sometimes, I'm sure more often than I'm allowed to glimpse, this response is limited to dismissing me as a bombastic pedant. Certainly, I used to cop a lot of flak in high school for being, as British comedian David Mitchell puts it, one of those who are 'constitutionally unable to write mon 24, but have to write, (capital M) Monday the 24th (th)'. I remember being asked on at least two occasions by different people, 'Yeah, why do you type in full grammar on MSN? Is there something you're trying to prove?' No, there wasn't, but I never really knew how to respond. To me, it seems much easier to just type one way no matter what you're doing on the computer, whether it be writing an essay or talking to your friends, rather than code-switching and having to work out the shortest possible method of typographically realising wot im tryin 2say.

Typing in full grammar or, as our grandparents called it, 'typing', is also just the best way of representing my voice in text.

That's probably not as important to most people as it is to me or, say, Elaine, and that's fine but, you know, I'm a writer. These things concern me. Text-speak homogenises voices into a single tone, and not even a good one. I don't know if it's the same for anyone else, but when I read something with random capitalisations and misspelled or simplified words and no punctuation except the occasional cluster of exclamation marks, apart from just being difficult to understand, it looks like an anthropologist's transcription of some atavistic conglomerate of preverbal grunts and groans, and it really just conjures in my mind the monotonal babbling of a three-year-old, in some hideous textual version of hypocorism. See here andor here for a pretty close (and hilarious) vocalisation of how I hear that kind of typing in my head.

'You put the wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble.'

The responses I see more of, though, are polite shows of impressed bewilderment or exaggerated deference:

In extreme cases, it seems my very identity dissolves in people's minds in a stew of linguistic lasciviousness and editing enthusiasm, and grammar becomes the sole thing they associate me with. My Year Twelve school shirt is embarrassingly emblazoned with my peers' texta-scrawled references to English prowess. 'I hope you enjoyed a gramatically [sic] correct birthday!' read one wall post on Facebook this year. 'My gift to you is the chance to edit my birthday message rambling', read another.

The response that is really disconcerting, though, is that of intimidation, which I'm getting more and more frequently. People say (half-jokingly, I assume, but still), that they're scared to talk to me over the internet or via text message, or to show me something they've written in case I judge them. And, okay, if you're writing LyK diZ den ur PrObZ goin 2 mayke me cRinJ a bit!!!! But, you know, if you're just doing it normally but you use the wrong homophone of 'your' and misspell some words and use too many commas, of course I'm not going to judge you! The only reason I would judge anyone over spelling is if they gave me some other reason to judge them first, à la:

This chick couldn't give me any more reasons to judge her.

People probably get this idea that I'm going to judge them from how vocal I am when I spot spelling mistakes and grammatical errors around the place. But I'd like to point out that this judgement is reserved for the products of companies and businesses, not people. Outside of certain contexts, I can hardly think of anything ruder than correcting someone's spelling or grammar unasked. It just infuriates me when a business doesn't make the effort to have someone go over their copy and make sure there's no glaring errors in it. In the research I'm doing for The X Book I've come across so many web pages for personalities like Kate Waterhouse and Erika Heynatz absolutely infested with errors and, even worse, sentences that just don't make sense. And these aren't obscure pages, either; they're management company profiles and official websites, the first ports-of-call for any journalist seeking information or doing research for an interview. Even if only on a subconscious level, it makes them seem totally unprofessional and B-grade.

This guy must know English isn't his strength; WHY wouldn't he have gotten someone to check the NAME of his business before he PRINTED IT ON THE SIDE OF HIS VAN?!

I guess it just irks me when businesses treat grammar like it's some unnecessary extra. It's not. It's important. The other day I was reading instructions on the Commonwealth Bank website and they'd misplaced a comma that completely changed the meaning of the instruction. And you know those viruses and internet ads that make false little security and messenger notifications appear in the corner of your screen to trick you into clicking on them and downloading whatever nefarious program they're hawking? Well, a spelling mistake in one of those one time is all that stopped me from clicking on it. If I had, who KNOWS where I'd be? Correct spelling is power. It indicates what's legit in the big, bad world of the internet. Rich corporations can afford to pay someone to edit their copy but poor, non-native-English-speaking scammers can't.


But what I think enables people to worry about me judging them is a widespread and unjustified insecurity when it comes to language. Grammar hasn't been taught in any explicit, comprehensive way in Australia since the '70s. The movement away from classical, prescriptive grammar makes teaching it very difficult and the idea was, I think, that instead of having to sit through dry, boring lessons on spelling and grammar, students would naturally pick up these skills in the course of their reading. Evidently this theory failed spectacularly. I mean, it worked for some I picked up the bulk of my understanding this way but then I have a friend who's probably even more voracious a reader than I am, and she struggles with spelling.

Because everyone uses language every day, people have a tendency to think that they should be able to spell words correctly and form sentences properly and use punctuation appropriately and, ideally, of course, they would. But they shouldn't feel insecure if they can't. It's a bit like saying everyone uses computers every day, so we should all know how to write code and format our hard drives and ... I don't know ... reconfigure our ... data ... settings. But why should we? We've never been taught to, and even if we have, it's not like we expect to remember everything we learned in Maths or Science or History. The fact is that the vast majority of us use our computers in the same way we use language: as superficially as we need to in order to get by. All those programs that come installed on your computer that you've never used are like the words tergiversate and properispomenon, and getting Windows to stop telling you that Application X987et has failed is like being able to use hyphens, en rules and em rules appropriately. By all means, if you want to, educate yourself: ask, read, Google away. The world could use it. But if you're not going to do that then stop stressing. Leave it to the academics and writers and editors, or the computer engineers, as the case may be.

Really, your spelling proficiency shouldn't reflect poorly on your intelligence at all. If someone is able to spell flawlessly and craft beautiful, powerful sentences with ease, it's probably a good indicator that they're smart. But I don't think the opposite is true. Some of the smartest people I know can't spell or express themselves very well in the written word. It's a different epistemological system altogether that shouldn't have any bearing on any negative judgement of intelligence, just like not knowing how to fix your computer or your car doesn't make you stupid. 

'[Intelligence] is not really [spelling]. [Spelling] is separate from [intelligence], and I don't see why [spelling] got all tied up and connected with [intelligence].'

It can be fun sometimes, though, for those of us well-versed in this separate epistemological system. Obviously most of my lecturers at uni are on a whole different plane of intelligence to me, but it can be cool having that one (not entirely irrelevant) body of knowledge in which I can match and even surpass some of them. I'm pretty sure, for example, that I held my own in grammatical debates with the legendary Shady Cosgrove* in the Editing classroom. But that just proves my point: intelligence and knowledge of spelling and grammar are separate, or all my lecturers would kick my ass in the latter.

*As she was referred to in the 2010 edition of Tide, which I believe, incidentally, is still the most grammatically correct edition ever (not that I'm biased, or anything).

Thankfully, the new national curriculum is redressing this absence in the syllabus, so people should start having some more sense of spelling and grammar, and stop feeling so insecure about it.

Finally I'd like to say I know that, like everybody, I'm not perfect. I make mistakes and typos and such. In fact, in my work as an editor, I've found that the most important characteristic to possess, rather than an encyclopedic knowledge of spelling and grammar, is the ability to know when something needs to be checked. In that spirit, the first person to find an error in this post wins a thousand points!

... But wait. This is a post by me. Surely it can't be over already! Well, it is. This post is really just a warm-up for the next one, which will be looking at spelling snobbery and the stupidity of grammatical prescriptivism. Stay tuned!


  1. Could not agree more with your sentiments; however "which they associate me with" could more appropriately be written as "with which they associate me"
    "me judging" could be replaced by "my judging"
    I like the spelling of "encyclopaedia" to be written thus, however I do not know how to create a diphthong on my keyboard.
    Also the quote from David Mitchell should be preceded by the words "one of those who is" instead of "one of those who are"
    My most serious complaint was made to an on line writing school, which advertised spelling and grammer (sic) tuition.
    Good luck with the battle. May I become a warrior?
    Jan Cornish

  2. You sure can, but don't get too prescriptive on me haha. I think I prefer all of those the way they are, personally. For a blog, at least. I think the whole 'with which' thing just makes it sound too awkwardly formal, and 'my judging them' makes it sound to me like I am actually judging them as opposed to them just worrying about being judged. And I can't say why, but I prefer 'e' to 'ae', too. I know what you mean with the formal agreement on 'one of those who is', but I think 'one of those who are' sounds better and makes sense as well, e.g. 'I am one of those (people) who are unable to write ...'

    But thanks for the feedback, and good to know we agree on the main things anyway haha.

  3. I was taught at junior school never to start a sentence with "and" or "but"

  4. As were many of us! But it turns out there's no reason to it.