Further thoughts on Spelling and Grammar


In case I caused a misunderstanding in my recent post regarding spelling and grammar, and our current use of computers, I would like to make a more few points on the subject.

I don’t think that either of these two, especially spelling, should deteriorate as a result of our constant use of computers. Nor does, or did, handwriting always hide bad spelling. My own handwriting is atrocious. My sister, a trained secretary who can type faster than I will ever hope to, has to decipher my writing when I write a letter to my parents. And I do write them letters, despite seeing them on skype every week, for I am one of those who never stopped writing letters. I began at the age of 13, writing to Mary, my pen-friend in Durham, who unfortunately died a few years ago. When her mother wrote to tell me, she said that Mary had always commented that I had the most important skill to be a doctor (I am only a PhD, like Dr. Phil): the indecipherable handwriting. When I wrote exams, I always did the second draft very slowly, making certain that each letter was legible.

My handwritten drafts of poems or stories are, happily, though, proof from the casual over-the-shoulder perusing that family members have such an annoying tendency to try. How do you understand that chicken scrawl, they wonder aloud. My little secret is that I sometimes don’t (the most common situation is after I write something after getting home from a night out – or worse still, while in the car or other means of transport on the way home from a night out). I usually have a fairly good memory of what I wrote, though, and I get the gist of the flow as long as I don’t leave it for weeks or months before I write it up. If every third of fourth word is just a blur, I can still figure it out:  like those “how powerful is your mind” things I was talking about, on the Internet – except I write my own.

When I am typing up, though, I have to fiddle with the screen or change windows until said family member leaves me alone. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how offended they get, then, when you tell them to piss off and let you work, saying “You never want me to read what you’re writing,” when there is a copy of my last novel lying unread on their desk top.

Of course, that is not to imply that there aren’t a whole heap of errors on my typed draft. Whether I am writing from scratch, from brain to page, or transcribing, I always type faster than my brain really can, just like I handwrite faster than my hand can move, and though I said I use the delete button more than the space-bar, that’s only on emails. the word documents get cleaned up later, with an mouse and the good old right-click to correct errors. The red underlining slowly disappears and I am left with something approaching illegible, if not readable. If the spell-check didn’t exist, though, I would go more slowly, I think. And I would certainly proof-read all my texts better before sending them off. Do kids do that so much, though? It doesn’t seem to be the case. Either that, or they see the mistakes and they can’t be bothered to right click the mouse, because they know that the standards are perhaps slipping, and people will still read and reply to their emails or whatever it is they are sending.

My first drafts are also littered with errors because I am not the greatest speller in the world. I am forever mixing up the h and t in strength and length to write strenght, and lenght, (because weight has them the other way around) and do all of the other things that show up in lists of the most common mistakes… But most people don’t know that – even though I admit it at the white-board of my class every now and again – because I always double check. I got to the computer type it as I think it should be and see if the little red line appears. With spell-check, it should be easier to keep your writing clean. But I always had a dictionary at hand before I had a computer. When I left home and moved to Spain, though my parents helped me out in buying a laptop to write up my thesis corrections, I stole their dictionary: a Marion-Webster (American spellings!) from the 80s that was the only reference book we had in the house – I am ignoring the completely useless set of encyclopedias that seemed to come without an index and were not in any logical order, much less alphabetical that sat on a shelf in the playroom for twenty years. Believe me, my parents didn’t need the dictionary. I was the last kid out of the house and my siblings never touched it much. I still do: I still have it, after taking it to Boston and back, and picking up a thesaurus or three on the way. My vocabulary isn’t too hot, either, despite my voracious reading. Sometimes my wife asks me the meaning of an English word and I find it hard to explain: “I mean, I kinda know what it means, and I’ve read it lots of times, and I know what context it normally comes up in, but a definition… let me check.” Without a thesaurus and dictionary, my poems would be pretty much poor, or poorer than they are. That old dictionary would be right there beside me in my bookshelf if I was writing this in my office, but I am in a park, watching the cotton seeds drift down from the poplar trees like summer snowflakes across the sun-rays through the trees and wondering how park benches can be redesigned for laptop writing comfort. Getting the words write matter to me, of course.

In my hand written exams I always corrected spelling as much as I could using the available vocabulary that was written on the exam sheet – something I always advise my students to do (especially those learning English as a Foreign Language). Any spelling mistake of a word that is written in the question or elsewhere on the exam is not a spelling mistake, it’s laziness.

That, my friends, is our big problem. Maybe the sheer quantity of text we have to write at speed makes it harder to pick up a few small errors and typos, but the vast majority of what we are experiencing that frustrates us is not small mistakes. It’s silly mistakes, stupid mistakes, repeated mistakes: mistakes that make it obvious the writer is either lacking a little education or lacking a lot of interest in making his or her words work correctly.

Another problem, related to that, is that not only are texts sent between individuals lacking in correct structure, but that ill-written texts are being (self)published as books and people are reading them because they’re free. I read through a short book about blogging, myself, that was advertised by the author as free on Kindle, and the amount of typos and spelling errors was such that I was a little embarrassed for the author.

Two days ago, some “writer” posted on a facebook writing page that he “had got half his book wrote,” and wanted advice on whether traditional or self publishing was the way to go. Everyone was a little too supportive, to be honest. I told him it was a long road, but at least he was on it ( I was on it more than twenty years). Others just said “self”, but we’re doing a disservice to the guy, and to potential readers if we let him put his work online before it is vetted by someone who knows the basics of grammar.

Nevertheless, I put the parenthesis around the self part of self-publishing, because there are print books out there that are just as bad, if not worse. When the Twilight series came out, several of my high school biology students read them voraciously. At first, I jocularly suggested they read something a little more worthy, but stopped as soon as I saw some of the other books they were even more addicted to. I won’t give the name because that would just be publicity, but let’s say that it was “Chic Lit” involving young ladies of colour in a sorority. I am sure it sells a lot of copies, written with the diction and spelling that I’d be aghast to see in an ESL student.

If this is what students are reading, I can but expect their essays to be somewhat lacking.

Some will say that these kinds of books are just breaking conventions that are old hat, anyway. If so, I can stop bothering to proofread and edit my work, then. And that message my publisher – which I waited many years to finally get so I could prove to myself my writing was worth reading – just sent me regarding formatting and punctuation can be safely ignored. But I don’t think so, like, seriously.




About davidjmobrien

Writer, ecologist and teacher

Posted on April 17, 2014, in Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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