Spelling and the fear of new technology

I read an article in The Sydney Morning Herald today that talked about a poll conducted by Galaxy. They asked 400 people in Sydney and Melbourne aged over 16 to spell eight commonly mis-spelled words. The words in question were:


According the article, people should be red faced about their inability to spell. Apparently around two thirds couldn’t spell embarrass, seventy per cent couldn’t spell accommodation and a quarter couldn’t spell February.

Galaxy found that women did better than men and only 7 per cent of respondents spelled everything right; 25-34 year olds ranked among the worst spellers.

I don’t find it all that surprising. Given the list of words, they’re commonly mis-spelled for a reason. Eighth is just a bastard of a word when you see it written down. There are examples of the double letter problem, like accommodation. It doesn’t look too bad spelled acommodation or accomodation but both are wrong. When you compare it to accommodation, however, nothing stands out as being obviously correct. Receipt is a good example of the old “i before e except after c” rule, but even that presents issues. This is partly due to only half a rule being known. Words like “sufficient” and “weird” prove that “i before e except after c” is not a true rule. It should be “i before e except after c when the sound is ee”. See this Language Log article for more. But I digress.

My point is that these are hard words to spell. The part of the article that really annoyed me though was this:

The children’s author Deborah Abela said spell check and text message abbreviations were harming people’s spelling skills.

Shouldn’t that be childrens’ author? Anyway, what she says is bollocks. I would wager that this same Galaxy poll conducted 20 years ago would have had the same results. Some people are good at spelling, some people learn to spell well and some are just atrocious at it. I don’t think that new technology is making people into worse spellers at all.

I watched an doco on SBS recently that followed a bunch of American kids that took part in national spelling bees. Those kids were crazy good at spelling, given their age, and they studied with a kind of rabid fervour. And that’s what it boils down to. Encouraging kids to learn is more important than looking for scapegoats like spellcheck and text messaging.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • LinkedIn
  • MySpace
  • Reddit
  • Slashdot
  • Technorati
  • RSS
  • Twitter

23 thoughts on “Spelling and the fear of new technology

  1. I’m pleased to say I looked at the list and would have had no probelm with any of then except ‘guarantee’ – it’s my blind spot. Every time I need to use it I have to check the spelling!

    Personally I never let a spellcheck change my words. If something gets a red underline I’ll check the spelling and correct it manually so there’s some concious mental correction of the word. If you just let something do it for you, you don’t take it in and will likely spell it wrong again next time.

    I’d be interested to see a poll of how reading habits have changed over the years. I suspect that fewer kids have reading as a hobby and that’s a fundamental aid in spelling. It’s one thing to be adept with spoken language, but that gives you no exposure to the actual spelling. Reading web pages is a help, but you’re generally looking at a maximum of a few hundred words at a time. A book envelops you in a world of words and just by sheer numbers means you are more likely to see a bigger variety of them.

    Reading more is the only real way to to get visual reference on how words are spelled.

    Of course that’s still no guaruntee!

  2. There is of course a problem with not using a spell checker AND not proof reading your words. Case and point, first line of my last comment should be ‘any of them’ not ‘any of then’.


  3. Michael – I love xkcd. It’s a toss up really whether that or Jesus & Mo is my favourite web comic. And you’re right – the world has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since the first people got old and started moaning about “young folk these days”.

    Graham – It’s funny how people have spelling blind spots. I know someone who is completely spelling-blind to whether/wether/when/wen/etc. Very strange.

    I agree about spellcheck – use the wiggly red line to learn. And proofreading is always good. I’m optimistic that things like Harry Potter might be helping to put reading back onto the hobby lists of kids. Then they can grow up and read my sick and twisted books. Which are largely spelled correctly.

  4. LOL

    Possessive apostrophes always cause strife. No, Alan, it should *not* be childrens’ author. Here’s why:

    A possessive apostrophe shows you to whom something belongs. Taking this example, the author belongs to the children.

    If the author belongs to the children, and not to the childrens (which, incidentally, is a nonsense word), then you put an apostrophe before the final ‘s’.

    Switching a sentence around is usually all it takes for you to see where a possessive apostrophe goes. As another example, the men’s football is a football belonging to the men. You can’t have the mens’ football, because ‘mens’ is a non-word.

    Does that make sense?

  5. PS – EVERY author needs to possess a copy of the AGPS Style Guide. Such rules as the possessive apostrophe are explained in full… and much more besides. It’s absolutely invaluable.

  6. Leticia,
    thanks for being so politely anal and correcting alan so I didn’t have to….. :0)

    Alan, I was spelling bee champ from third grade on, so no problem with the list….I do however, have a blind spot with the words definitely and supposed and have found that even when you spell the word surreptitious correctly it just looks wrong, wrong, wrong.
    thanks for stopping by to see Cat’s interview today.
    Karen 🙂

  7. Karen, thanks for dropping by. Some words do indeed look wrong, even when spelled correctly.

    Phoenix, for example.

  8. Karen: my pleasure. I’m anal about it because I’m an editor 😉

    Alan: yes, and I think that everybody has a word (or ten) that he or she finds difficult to spell correctly, or that looks ‘wrong’. I’m lucky that there are very few words like that for me, because I have great shape recognition – so I know if a word is right by its shape, when written down. It’s also why I’m terrible at spelling words aloud! LOL

  9. I can’t think of any blind spots I have. I’ve always seemed to be naturally good a spelling. I’m sure there are some that catch me out that I just can’t bring to mind at the moment though.

  10. and albuquerque…..hey now that I’ve been invited in…much like a vampire….I’ve been poking around….and I’ve ALREADY sent you a video via email regarding robots….hmmmmm…this could be a mixed blessing…

  11. I think “children’s” may be right, but admit it’s one of those things that I have to check on every time I use it. Think I would’ve done alright on the list of words, though. Then again, I’m a writer, so I’d hope I’d do moderately well, anyway.

    One that’s had me stumped for a while: the adjective of “subtle”. Any ideas?

  12. Reay – children’s is right. See Tish’s explanation above.

    Not sure what you mean about the adjective of subtle. Subtle can be an adjective…?

  13. Sorry, my bad. Still waking up. Adverb is what I was looking for (says the blushing writer). Subtly, is it? No “e”s at all, then… yeah, that would be enough to throw off word searches.

    Thanks, all.

  14. I think there is a small bit of truth to the idea that text speak has a negative impact on students’ spelling, but I don’t think the survey cited in the article is an example of that phenomenon.

  15. Dave – I agree. Every change in communications and media has something of a knock on effect. I’m sure handwriting skills are worse than ever since students type most of their stuff now. I’ve even heard teenage girls saying, “LOL!” out loud, which just astounded me!

Leave a Comment