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A spell of rough weather

There was a mild dustup today on the Internet over, of all things, spelling.

The rhubarb started when Anne Trubek flung down the gauntlet with a suggestion in Wired that we abandon standardized spelling in favor of something more fluid: “Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules. Computers, smartphones, and tablets are speeding the adoption of more casual forms of communication—texting is closer to speech than letter writing. But the distinction between the oral and the written is only going to become more blurry, and the future isn’t autocorrect, it’s Siri. We need a new set of tools that recognize more variations instead of rigidly enforcing outdated dogma. Let’s make our own rules. It’s not like the English language has many good ones anyway.”

The copy desk at Wired promptly picked up trhe gauntlet and entered the lists: “ Let’s concede that the rules are ‘arbitrary contrivances’” as Trubek says. The problem is that she draws the wrong conclusion. No, it doesn’t matter how we spell any given word; what matters is that we agree on some particular spelling. Standards are what make communication possible—as any network engineer will tell you. The Internet itself is a set of standards. Our spelling system, for all its oddities, is a universal, inclusive code.”

Before this ruction turns into a donnybrook, let’s keep some things clear.

Ms. Trubek is correct that English got along fine for several centuries without standardized spelling, which dates mainly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the spread of public education. And a good deal of what has been written in the past century—personal letters, for example—fails to observe all the orthographic niceties.

And everyone can agree that English orthography is a large shaggy, ungovernable beast, the issue of Mother Tongue’s inveterate liaisons with other tongues. Noah Webster, George Bernard Shaw, and countless other reformers have imagined that they could tame it, but it has thrown them all.

Ms. Trubek argues, in part, that spelling conventions are just snobbery, shibboleths. But, as Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster observes, cultures use shibboleths to make judgments. The making of such judgments is inescapable in the social subtexts and supratexts of language.

Besides, she gave the game away by conceding that “standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity,” which is pretty much the point that the copy editors’ response makes.

So what we are left with after this afternoon’s shindy is this: If good spelling is the most you can boast of, you are probably entitled to our sympathies. But it is useful if you would like to make yourself understood. As to English’s chaotic spelling, it might help to think of it as you do of the family you were born into. There’s only so much you can do with it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:20 PM | | Comments (10)


The sad thing is that there are a lot of good arguments to be made about the need for spelling reform or at least greater acceptance of variations or changes, but it all got lost in the empty iconoclasm. Trubek's article needed less heat and more light.

Wow, the comments in the Wired article are ... unkind. Perhaps rather than suggesting an abandonment of any spelling standard, Ms. Trubek should have suggested some revision (simplifications) to standard spellings, ala Noah Webster.

I agree with her in the general that the spelling system of English is insanely hard to master, and most people who write never master it, and that for ordinary communications that's ok. I happen to know some people who are wretched spellers (in fact, I'm married to such a person), and from this I have learned that the ability to spell is, as we say, orthogonal with general intelligence or any pretty much any other desirable characteristics. That said, I do agree that reading the bad spelling of a complete stranger does give a body a negative first impression. But then, that's true also if they were high-water pants or sweatshirts with poofy Christmas designs on them, or if they sport a mullet.

In any event, spelling reform (simplification, whatever) cannot be ordained. It has to evolve via a combination of pressure from many, many writers who use a particular spelling and the acceptance into the cannon by some brave and forward-thinking authorities of spellings that bubble up from this.


Calling The Chicago Tribune . . .
Is this something like spelling cigarette cigaret?

Or Time magazine deciding to spell kidnapping with only one "p"?

John--I appreciate how you wrote up the debate. I'd just like to note 2 things: 1.) I never say we should abandon standardized spelling. I argue we need to be more flexible, which is pretty much what you and Mike say here. In other words, if enough people understand l8r= later, clarity will *not* be lost by using that variation.
2.) You misspelled my last name.

Very clearly, Ms. Trubeck has no grandchildren. I get notes from the Boys (1st & 2nd grade) that take me a very long time to decipher since they are, largely, spelled phonetically-as-heard. (Spelling words at this age do not cover the subjects of truly important communication.) Even acknowledging certain handwriting issues, I cannot, as I type this, think of any other persons on the planet worth that much effort. I don't want to come off as Henny Penny about this, but I just don't see free-for-all spelling working out in the long run.

Flexibility, Ms. Trubek, flexibility.

Mr. MacIntyre: The family I was born into may shudder at the unwarranted c, but me, I ain't no snob.

Prof. McI.,

Hmm...... so I surmise, in accordance w/ Ms. Trubek's avowed more 'flexible' regard for English spelling, that the 'header' for your article could just as easily have read, "A spelt of ruff whether'? Oy gevalt! Am I completely meshugenah, here?

Of course, "spelt" is a primitive Eurasian wheat species; a "ruff' , a 17th century lacy, roundish frill-collar; and "whether" has the implication of 'come-what-may, or maybe, 'even if'.

Just 'shows to go yah' how darn confounding, and complicated English spellin' can really be, at times. And we wonder why non-native English speakers in our midst are often flummoxed, and totally confused by the seeming inconsistency, and counter-intuitiveness in the spelling of so many English words. (But then again, the Innuit people of Arctic climes have over one hundred ways to say "snow". So I guess it's all relative.)

@ Ms. Trubek, respectfully, you may not regard yourself as a snob, but you clearly have a bit of a vengeful, defensive streak, nonetheless. Hard to slough over your (likely intentional) misspelling of our esteemed blogmeister's last name in your last post intro, w/ that additional "a" thrown in there for obvious spite, eh? Naughty! Naughty!

(I'm an expat-Canadian, eh, so I could have unwittingly misspelled your name, as well, since your surname is but one letter off the spelling of our revered Sudbury, Ontario-born-and raised veteran "Jeopardy" TV host's, Alex Trebek. I recall him sharing, on-air, that his last name was of Ukrainian decent.)

Now swapping say "Trudeau" (Canada's former flamboyant, long-standing Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot) for your Trubek, would clearly be a much more egregious faux pas....... non? Not only your folks, but you, no doubt, would be entitled to righteous indignation for such a grievous misappellation (sp.?)

But seriously, I still believe this discussion about the future of English spelling, (whether one is a more rigid traditionalist-play-by-the-rules type, or a more flexible, no-holds-barred laissez faire-ist), is very constructive, and can only bring some degree of rapprochement, and compromise between the two camps, over time.

To totally disregard the established, pretty much universally accepted rules of English spelling as we know them, and let folks basically write words as they please, or phonetically sound, is ludicrous. IMHO, there must be some kind of a happy medium. To compare spelling on social media like Twitter, and smart-phone texting, which has its own developing media-specific jargon, short-forms, and in-zy codes, to the accurate, precise, correct spelling intrinsically demanded of serious journalistic, and technical writing really amounts to an apples, and oranges scenario.

Ms. Trubek, in my reading of your piece for Wired magazine it seemed that you were kind of straddling those two aforementioned camps, and weren't really saying we should necessarily throw the baby out w/ the bath water....... entirely, when it comes to the issue of latitudes in English spelling. I actually agreed w/ several of your observations.

(Just like me to end this post w/ a hackneyed cliche....... "the baby-with-the-bath-water" bit. At least there were no spelling gaffes......... that this jaundiced eye could readily see, at any rate. HA!)


The funny thing is, with search engines, content amalgamations, etc., standardized spelling is actually MUCH more important!

We all already communicate well when people aren't good spellers. But that's largely because people deviate only slightly from a standardized spelling.

We don't label misspellings as "correct" and try to emulate them, but the vast majority of people, in their everyday lives, don't even blink at bad spelling.

And for those people who truly, absolutely need to spell things "correctly" usually are able to memorize what they need to.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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