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Does Spell’n Matta Anymore?

At the risk of becoming an unemployed English teacher and being ‘donked’ on the head by one of my colleagues with a heavy dictionary, I ask, “Does i before e, except after c, have a place these days? In a world of red squiggly lines, how relevant is it that one knows how to spell? Does technology always know best?

Remember this paragraph?

“Arocdnicg to rsceearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosnt mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer are in the rghit pcale. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit pobelrm. Tihs is buseace the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

The paragraph contains a bunch of letters that are jumbled, and you are still able to read it at a normal pace. The passage speaks for itself and says that according to a research study done at Cambridge university, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are; only the first and last letters need to be in the right place. According to it, everything in the middle can be messed up and you can still easily read it even when it clearly shouldn’t be making any sense. Knowledge of Standardised spelling supports my computer to autocorrect my poor spelling. While the legitimacy of what the previous passage claims has been challenged, the basic understanding is that so long as all the ‘correct’ letters are present, skilled readers can decode what is being written. However, that requires writers to have some knowledge of standardised spelling in the first place – ‘ise’ for Australian spelling and abide by these spelling conventions. Arguably, those ‘red squiggly lines’ which appear on our typed page to warn us of misspelt words are a reminder that if I want people to take me seriously and share my message, I not only need to correct my spelling, I need to ensure my computer’s suggestion is the word I want to use.

Does technology really know what is best? Autocorrect, in very simple terms, works on the model of probability – the probability of words being followed by other words- to offer the most appropriate corrections. In 1998, Lunsford, a researcher into errors in writing, reported twenty of the most common errors in student papers and found ‘wrong words’ to be the fourth most common error. In 2008, the study was repeated with ‘wrong words’ topping the list. Misspelling, which didn’t even place in the top twenty in 1988, jumped to number five.

Autocorrect software is a handy tool. But let’s face it, it is only as intuitive as the person using it! Autocorrect won’t catch homonym errors, words like “weather’ and ‘whether” or typos that are actual words, “While in his care (car), Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.” Not to mention hideous grammatical errors for apostrophe violators such as, it’s versus its, or the banishment of commas, made famous by “Let’s eat, grandma” versus “Let’s eat grandma”. Commas, goes the refrain, save lives.

That said, I have a confession, when teaching my adolescent students to write, I have been known to utter the phrase,” Don’t let your inability to spell a word get in the way of what you have to say.” I know what you’re thinking, what sort of English teacher is She? Put plainly I don’t want my student’s potential as a speller to cramp their style as a communicator. Would you write the word ‘bad’ when you really want to use ‘catastrophic”? The golden rule is this, if you know what the word means then use it. Why wouldn’t we? In speech we don’t avoid words because we can’t spell them and nor should we when we write.

Above all let’s not fear spelling, which can suffocate the sophistication of thought. Embrace autocorrect and predictive text but like any good masters – own it – don’t let it dictate your message!

Lisa Holohan
Humanities Faculty Coordinator
holohanl@atc.qld.edu.au