Spelling and civilization

The Baltimore Sun

The other day the vigilant @Mededitor discovered a commentary on “crimes against grammar” by one Michael D. Langan, whose byline identifies him as the Culture Critic for NBC-2.com in southwest Florida. You could click on the link to read it, but it would be a waste of your time.

The crimes that exercise Mr. Langan are mainly spelling errors and typographical errors: “Niagra Falls,” “colonnade,” “anniversary.”

Accompanying these examples are generalizations about the Decline of Everything whose banality is nicely matched with improbability: “The reasons for the decline of English are many: poorer education, the use of the Internet and its devices, the disappearance of the family and meaningful conversation, etc.” and “When one looks about, capacities such as logical thinking, proper spelling, careful handwriting, politeness, seem to have gone by the board, (not ‘bored.’), in the last twenty-five years.”

We could linger to make sport of this hapless commentator, but it might be more useful to restate some salient points that usually get lost in the din of uninformed commentary on grammar and its links to the social order.

English spelling is a treacherous morass for everyone. The inconsistencies and anomalies of our orthography are the marks of the mongrel origin of the language. Dictionaries and public education have done what they can to establish a degree of consistency, but you can dismiss talk of spelling reform, which is a chimera.

Sneering at poor spelling has more to do with status than grammar. We like to pounce on spelling errors and typos. Nineteenth-century American humor of the Petroleum V. Nasby sort leaned heavily on illiterate spelling, and the satisfaction continues today. You may have seen the New Yorker cartoon in which an irritated diner says to the waiter, “I’ll have the misspelled ‘Ceasar’ salad and the improperly hyphenated ‘veal osso-buco.” Spelling errors and typos are the easiest errors to spot, and thus the cheapest source of social and intellectual superiority on the market.

The Internet is not making us stupid. In effect, anyone who has access to a computer and a modem is now a publisher. Thus expressions previously seen by no more than a handful of one’s acquaintances are now, in effect, published for the whole world. What the Internet does is to reveal how stupid and ill-educated we are.

We are not getting dumber. The undergraduate writing I saw as a teaching assistant at Syracuse University forty years ago was every bit as shallow and subliterate as the writing of undergraduates I see today. The journalists whose work I began editing thirty-five years ago made the same damn mistakes with homonyms, subject-verb-agreement, and pronoun case that I was correcting last week, and expect to correct again this week.

The disturbing thing is that we do not appear to be getting any smarter. Ninety years after the Scopes monkey trial, people continue to campaign to suppress the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Multitudes are suckered into believing the most preposterous nonsense: that the president of the United States is a secret Muslim, that vaccines cause autism, that slavery was not the South’s main motive in secession, and that reading Strunk and White will turn the tyro into a competent writer.

Before you go mooning about the Decline of Everything, keep in mind that spelling is the least of our problems.

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