Sunday, December 02, 2007

Spelling: The Sequel

Dictionary Evangelist

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and entertaining conference speaker.

When first I encountered her two years ago at GEL, she began her talk by addressing a common misconceptions about her work.

"People often think that lexicographers prescribe meaning and keep the language as pure as possible. In fact, we research the way language is used -- in all sorts of media -- and we chart how language changes."

With this in mind, Erin's views on spelling are generous. See the last post for details on how to let yourself off the hook, regardless of how often others wince at the way you put letters together in writing

When Last We Saw Our Hero . . .

Erin is working as an independent assessor for CAGSE's Latin programs in primary school. The success of the pilot, running in 15 schools across London, will be measured both by her and by another independent assessor and former head of the Primary Trust, Peter Frost.

The first rule in business: If you haven't measured it, it never happened.

And So

Erin and I had supper at Carluccio's (for those of you who visit London occasionally -- there are quite a few, and the food is consistently good without being expensive).

I was interested to hear about her day in the schools.

We got on the subject of spelling and spell checks.

"Spell checks are terrible," said Erin, "and even if someone were to design a good one, people wouldn't use it anyway."

I asked why. She explained it thus:

It's very similar to the way a smoke alarm goes off every time you make toast. How many times has such a device been dismantled, never to be seen again?

The spell check is very much like a smoke alarm that demands attention every time one writes anything. It's annoying. So you ignore it.

Happens to be true for me, and I'm a lousy speller.

So Why Are Those of Us Not Blessed With the Spelling Gene So Bad At Catching Mistakes, Even When We Try?

Erin has given this a lot of thought. "Fixing your spelling requires that you know that you don't know how to spell a word (which means checking a lot of false positives from your spell checker) ... how often do you know that you don't know something, when it's something you're not good at in the first place?"

And the alternative?

"I think we need two things: better spell checkers (no false positives) and more leniency for typos/thinkos/spellos."

Leniency for Spellos. I'd vote for the person who ran for president on that ticket (Why do you hate freedom?).

So many jokes I could make about the thinkos of the White House's current inhabitant, but it's just too easy. I'm just not that kind of girl.

More in the next post on spelling, dictionaries, and the enlightenment.

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