David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Why Is Spelling and Grammer Importunt?

When I was the editor of the student newspaper at Johns Hopkins in 1993, I got hold of an amusing letter that another campus publication was sending out to local businesses. That publication’s editor was trying to solicit ads for its upcoming issues. Only the editor made an egregious spelling error: he was soliciting adds. Would you like to buy an add in our magazine? We have good prices for our adds. Your add is important to us.

This raises an important question for writers, one that speaks to the entire purpose of human society altogether. Why are proper spelling, punctuation and grammar important?

The Incomprehensible Layer of Language

The knee-jerk response to this question is that we can’t communicate efficiently without proper orthography. (For those who missed the class on Important Multisyllabic Words, Wikipedia defines orthography as “the set of symbols… used to write a language, as well as the set of rules describing how to write these glyphs correctly.”)

There is some truth to the idea that orthography equals communication. English speakers have tacitly agreed on a set of symbols (the Roman alphabet) and a set of common pronunciation guidelines for these symbols. If everyone simply abandoned this system and communicated however they felt like at the moment, obviously we wouldn’t get very far.

Once we’ve covered the basic descriptive rules of written language, however, there’s still a lot of wiggle room. There’s an entire layer of spelling, punctuation and grammar rules that makes little sense and serves no objective purpose. Why do we use the letter “c” at all when we could easily substitute either “k” or “s”? Why are through, cough, rough and plough all pronounced differently? Why does “i” come before “e” except after “c”? Our language is riddled with inconsistencies, one-off rules, backwards logic and just plain lunacy.

Spend five minutes looking at these Byzantine rules of the English language, and you’ll very quickly realize that communication has nothing to do with things at this level. Taking the example of the editor selling adds, we clearly know what he was trying to communicate, despite his lack of linguistic correctness.

We see that our hapless student editor was not guilty of miscommunication at all. He was simply ignorant of a largely superfluous layer of rules and regulations. So why do we have these rules in the first place?

The Societal Purpose of Windsor Knots

Sometimes I think of orthography as similar to the act of tying a necktie.

Why does society call an individual wearing a tie a “properly dressed” individual? There’s very little practical use for a necktie — it doesn’t keep you warm, it doesn’t make you more comfortable, it doesn’t really provide a large enough space for making a fashion statement.

The answer turns out to be somewhat self-reflective. Society values men wearing properly tied neckties because by doing so they demonstrate that they care enough to learn how to properly tie a necktie. Any slob can throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt with a minimum amount of attention or preparation. But it takes time, knowledge, care and attention to learn how to make a proper Windsor knot. If you didn’t care about the rules of society, you wouldn’t bother. Wearing a properly tied necktie is an affirmative statement that the wearer is a member of so-called “proper” society.

In other words: society values difficult systems and traditions precisely because they’re difficult.

Tying a necktie is a difficult skill to pass along in a book; you’re much more likely to have the skill passed down to you in person by a father or older brother. If you’ve grown up in a working-class community with a father who never wore ties — or in a ghetto with a completely absent father — or in a remote farming community where there’s no opportunity or occasion for wearing ties — you’re less likely to learn.

Not only is the Windsor knot difficult to learn, but society requires that you learn this skill even though there is a better and easier alternative. On the whole, clip-on ties look the same and act the same as your garden-variety necktie. It’s not always easy to tell the difference between the two. Yet those who use clip-ons in our society are considered lazy, cheap or uncultured.

The Societal Purpose of Spelling

Back to spelling.

If the complicated rules of English are such a chore to learn, why don’t we streamline the language and trim away the useless fat? (See Václav Havel’s marvelous play The Memorandum for a fascinating exploration of this idea.) Why don’t we simplify? Why don’t we make English easy enough so that everyone can learn it without complication?

Think back to the necktie discussion. Society values a properly Windsored necktie because it gives us an easy way to measure a person’s knowledge of the rules of culture. Likewise, society values a complex system of spelling and grammar because it gives us an easy way to measure a person’s education.

If you can’t spell or punctuate properly, you are labeling yourself as uneducated. You haven’t learned society’s secret handshake. Whether you’re aware of it or not, there is a certain stratus of people who will see you as an outsider. As much of an outsider as a man wearing a clip-on tie.

Spelling and Elitism

Is it elitist to think that society uses spelling, punctuation and grammar to fence out the uneducated? Sure, but before you start getting too far ahead of yourself, keep in mind that the “uneducated” agree with this particular valuation system too.

Sometime in the mid ’90s, I transcribed an interview that a black co-worker of mine had done with a group of rap artists for a hip-hop magazine. I handed him the transcript with every “motherfucker” and “nigger” dutifully typed out. He laughed and pointed out that, in the hip-hop community, those words were spelled “muthaphukka” and “nigga.”

Why purposefully misspell those words? Because so-called “cultured” white people have a different way of spelling those words. (Never mind that the so-called “cultured” people, white and black, generally frown on those words altogether.) Because the hip-hop community wants to purposefully distance itself from mainstream culture. Because the hip-hop community has said, in effect: “You go ahead and tie your Windsor knots. We’re going to stand outside and flaunt our clip-on ties.”

I could go on about how politicians exploit this phenomenon too, but I’ve already meandered far enough afield, and you’re better off reading George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” anyway.

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Deanna Hoak on February 13, 2006 at 12:15 pm  Chain link

    Interesting discussion!

    You forgot about how it’s important because we need to keep the poor copyeditors in work, though! 😉

  2. alex lisah on March 24, 2006 at 6:39 am  Chain link

    Thanks for the information we actually used some of your notes for a coursework keep it up.

  3. A.R.Yngve on May 18, 2006 at 9:14 am  Chain link

    There’s another, more subtle layer in English: when non-native English speakers use English.

    I’m Swedish, but I write in English. Sometimes this is pointed out to me (“Your prose shows you’re not American/English”).

    And I have this creeping suspicion that no matter how long and hard I work at improving my English… no matter how formally correct my grammar is… someone will always tell me “I can see on how you write that you’re not born an English speaker.” I admit it makes me a bit edgy.

    So I ask you: Does English “belong” to the English? Can they wear it like a necktie, or rather like a club tie, and say “Only we speak the true diction”?

    I’m not referring to grammar or spelling, but the finer details: whether to use the passive or active tense, precise use of perfect tense such as “has been”/”was”/”used to be”, etc.

  4. David Louis Edelman on May 18, 2006 at 9:59 am  Chain link

    I think there will always be this tension between “native” and “non-native” speakers. Just like there will always be some band of creeps that insists on judging you by your relation to the people that sailed over here on the Mayflower.

    People can claim whatever ownership they like. The power comes with the numbers. Which is why in a hundred years, the U.S. will be a Spanish language country. (That’s assuming we’re not all speaking Chinese.)

  5. Frank Nunes on October 2, 2012 at 6:16 am  Chain link

    English does not belong to the English, the Australians, the Americans or any other English-speaking nation. It is the only language that has more constituents who speak it as a second language than as a first. Contrary to Mr. Edelman’s assertion, I submit that there is a greater chance that the Spanish-speaking nations will become English speakers than vice versa (Note that one of English’s strengths is the ease with which its speakers incorporate foreign words and phrases into its lexicon.). The reason Yngve has trouble is not because of grammar or active/passive voices, it’s because he or she is using the wrong prepositions. I speak Norwegian (very close to Swedish) and I recognize and sympathize with the problem, because I have the exact same problem in Norwegian. For your information, Yngve, “I can see on how you write that you’re not born an English speaker,” should read, “I can see BY how you write ….”

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