Saturday, December 01, 2007

"A" is For Apple (And Also for Adapt)

Spelling it Out

There have been debates in education at least since the 1960's over whether or not demanding proper spelling will block children's creative impulses.

One side posits that children should write in whatever form they like without reference to grammatical or linguistic standards practiced by (some) adults. In what other time of life is it possible to be free to express feelings, thoughts, ideas without fear of censure from authority?

The other side of the argument says that without enforcing spelling rules, children don't learn self-discipline.

The Dictionary Evangelist

Erin McKean, Dictionary Evangelist -- and lexicographer for Oxford University Press -- feels that good spellers have made life unnecessarily uncomfortable for those without the same talent.

"It's genetic," she told me at dinner, "like being able to roll your tongue or bend your first knuckle back."

Erin's concern is that that those with this genetic gift -- or (worse) those who have beaten into submission without benefit of it -- have created an unrelenting sense of morality about getting words right. This peculiar zeal (and the opinion about spelling that is its source) are apparently only apparent for those who evangelize about English.

"There's a sense that if you misspell a word, you're being lazy or just don't care."

And how many of the seven deadly sins will then collect in such an atmosphere of sloth?

The demand for fortitude extends to moralizing about spell checks. Spell checks are dangerous because they encourage slovenliness of mind. They clean one's dirty laundry that would otherwise be hanging out for everyone to see. And we should clean our own laundry, by gum.

I couldn't help wondering if these puritans of metaphor had ever hired cleaners for their homes.

How consistent are these religious principles anyway?

Discipline Shmiscipline

Erin suggests that that spelling is really only one discipline among many. If good spellers took their argument to the logical conclusion, it would be absurd.

"Should we say shoes are immoral, too? That if we were just disciplined enough to toughen up our feet, we could all walk around barefoot?"

According to Erin, language changes as people need it to change. Dictionaries do not prescribe meaning but instead describe the ways in which words have transformed and are used every day.

So those who sniff at new and alternative spellings when they see them in their OED are simply hardened reactionaries, condemned to a life of mounting disappointment and increasing despair.

More in the next post.

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