Does Spelling Still Matter?

Not long ago former colleague Ann Handley wrote an article on five common usage mistakes that people commonly make. In it, she said:

In an age of texting and Twitter, does grammar matter?…The truth is, no. It dznt always matter, unless u r anal. (Which I am, of course. But that’s a choice each of us is free to make, at least in regard to grammar.)

Reading her words, I cringed, because I, too, am anal and feel that good grammar and usage still count. Ann went on to say that “good grammar and usage do indeed matter generally, because as a business leader, colleague and boss, it’s important for you to communicate clearly, and to speak well.” Ah! Even some would argue that grammar and usage don’t count on Twitter, there are times when we want to impress others, and writing well is one way to do that.

To that, I would add that spelling still counts, too. Even with all the texting abbreviations, spelling counts. I know there are some who look down on those who spell out all the words in a text message, but there are reasons beyond impressing someone that we should attend to the proper spelling of our words.

Lit Time: Duncan’s Poowooms

When you come right down to it, letters are arbitrary symbols for the sounds we make. You could argue that since they are arbitrary, spelling shouldn’t count, and that for hundreds of years it didn’t. If our ancestors could survive on fluid spelling, why can’t we?

One reason is that the world is a smaller place these days. Millions of people around the world speak English. We can talk to someone in India or Australia in a shared mother tongue. But even though we may speak the same language, how we pronounce that language can vary greatly. You don’t have to have different accents or come from a different culture, though, to sound out words differently.

Here’s a poem written by my six year old, Duncan:

Wuts apona
Taym
1 man cood
Only caw
T to 4

In kindergarten (which he completes today), spelling doesn’t count. The idea is to practice sounding out words and writing them down. These kindergarteners are also memorizing sight words (words they know how to read because they’ve memorized them), learning the different sounds letters make, and starting to sound out words as they read. It’s a system that has worked well at our school. Both my children came out of kindergarten as beginning readers. But what would happen if Duncan were to continue to sound out words rather than learn to spell? Here’s another poem:

Wunts
Apon a tuym
Theare
Was a prsi
N w sed
More books
Dat is el he
Sed
The end

When Duncan asked me to type up his poems so he could create a book, I suggested that we should type them as he had spelled them and spelled correctly. He had to struggle a bit to read them all to me. These were his soundings-out, his versions of words, and he couldn’t always make them sound the same again. Not surprisingly, the words he did spell right were all from his sight word list. Here’s how we translated the first poem (I tried to keep his original line breaks; it is poetry, after all):

Once upon a
Time
One man could
Only count
To four

The second poem translates to:

Once
Upon a time
There
Was a person
Who said,
“More books!”
That is all he
Said
The end

In the first poem, “once upon a time” is written “wuts apona taym.” In the second, it’s rendered as “wunts apon a tuym.” Even in one writing session, Duncan didn’t hear all the words the same way twice. True, he’s in kindergarten and doesn’t have as much experience with words as we grownups. But if we grownups had never studied spelling, would we hear things differently too?

Yes, spelling is arbitrary. Yes, it’s work to spell correctly. But spelling matters. I loved Duncan’s poems…once I understood them.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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