Spelling and making sense

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  • Published 20120605
  • ISBN: 9781921922534
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

LET’S START WITH spelling: it’s often the first plank of literacy.

As a child, I was renowned for my spelling ability. My parents proudly boasted that I had never made a spelling mistake. All I needed was to see a word in print – and thereafter, I could spell it!

I didn’t aim to be a good speller. It was something that just happened to me. Something I didn’t even think about until the twenty-first century – when I began to realise that I couldn’t spell any more. (This along with the recognition that I couldn’t remember current phone numbers any more – only the ones that I had known as a child. That’s another ‘sign’ – and I hope it’s not an indication that I am getting dumber – or demented.)

I am of course the world’s worst typist – for many reasons: (one being that as a teenager in search of a career, I believed that my refusal to attend shorthand- typing classes would protect me from becoming a secretary.)

I am used to having a screen where as a result of my poor keyboard skills, so many of the words are errors, and underlined in red. But what has come as a shock is that when I look at these words and think how I should correct them – I can’t remember the right spelling. I’ve lost my images.

The representation of the word – the shape of it – that I have held in my head and once so effortlessly reproduced, is no longer there. It has slowly receded; these days I have to go to spellcheck to fix the errors. (Takes but a second however, compared to a dictionary.)

Once upon a time when my eyes cast on the standardised printed word in the countless books that I read, on the rare occasions that I encountered a misspelling, it was a typo that I had discerned. AND IT STOOD OUT!

I would almost whoop at my discovery of the error. There was a red alert that this was not the right image; speller beware. But these days when so much of my communication is by iPhone, where spelling has been redesigned to meet the needs of the small screen, the so-called old disruptions are more often the norm than is standardised print. And this makes a difference to my ‘literacy’.

I routinely use ‘u’ for you and ‘c’ for see (among many others) and if I am writing something formal (where the requirements have also changed), I have to get someone else to check my text as I cannot ‘see’ the right and wrong versions of the word any more. I use these new forms without thinking about them – in the same way that I once automatically used the correct spelling.

I am not apologising for this – no more than I would apologise for putting aside my pen and moving to a keyboard. Language forms constantly change. It’s about ‘keeping up’ with the changes; not about putting energy into resisting, and trying to preserve the old and familiar.


I HAPPILY ACKNOWLEDGE that I like the fun of text – along with its utilitarian value. It’s a bit like the shorthand I refused to learn – but with many more literary and fanciful opportunities. It’s become something of an art form in many contexts. As early as 2001, the Guardian held the first TXTNG poetry competition. Just as a sonnet has a specific format, so too there are form requirements for the txt poem. 160 characters to fit the screen. The newspaper was astonished by the more than 7,500 entries that the competition attracted; and the panel of prestigious poets who participated in the judging – were equally astonished at the quality of the poems:

TXTN iz messin

mi headn’ me englis

try2rite essays

they all come out txtis

gran not plsed w/letters she gets

swears i wrote better


&she’s african[1]

(And it’s hard to do this at a keyboard without spell-check messing with my text.)

In the decade since that first competition, hundreds of thousands of TXT poems have been entered in a multitude of competitions and events – and countless thousands have been inspired by the constraints of the TXT message to create an extraordinary range of literary/ literacy works.

Of course there are many who don’t see this as progress.

John Humphreys for example, the widely acclaimed BBC announcer publicly declared that texters are nothing but ‘vandals doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago; they are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped’[2]

He is not alone in his condemnation. Nor would he have been alone in the century that followed the introduction of the printing press when publishers of the new ‘pagan texts’ (that is, the classics), were themselves burned; their books were torched and banned, and the authors banished in the attempt to stop the new machine from destroying the beauty and the power of the sacred manuscripts.

Many have died in the interests of changing the language. In the fourteenth century there was no English version of the bible, just Latin; only the priests could possess the meanings that were conveyed to the congregation. In the struggle to translate and publish a bible in English – to open up communication to the people, ‘hundreds were martyred, dying the most horrible deaths for their part in creating and distributing to the people the first English Bible’.[3] All in the name of preserving standards.


WHILE THERE IS no record of anyone dying for the legitimacy of TXTNG, there have been some outstanding protests about the extent to which the language is being ruined by such assaults. David Crystal, the distinguished linguist and academic has written a rather playful book on TXTNG and its many advantages; he has also asked why this new form of communication is the source of so mach fuss.

The basic objections are that TXTNG will erode the ability of the population to spell, punctuate, and capitalise correctly, students will soon be unable to write proper English – or spell, and they will as a result get poorer results in their exams.

And while he tries to dispel (one or two ‘l’s in that word I ask myself?), these so-called myths, I can attest that four years after the publication of his book – I can state with authority that the protesters were right all along: the ‘myths’ have become reality.

According to the report of the National Year of Reading – nearly half of Australia’s population has poor levels of literacy and can’t read with fluency: and despite our mammoth efforts, half of our fifteen to twenty-four year olds are unable to read to an adequate level to properly function in society.

Would I qualify as having a poor literacy level, I wonder? I am no longer the perfectly correct speller. In my online world I have pretty well abandoned punctuation (certainly the dreaded apostrophe) – and I haven’t used capitals for decades. (I can’t help it if ‘Word’ keeps putting these extras in – and my emails often provide relief because my txt remains unedited, and I can use lower case to my heart’s content and simply make use of the dot … and the dash —).

But I’m still here. I’m still writing. And I can’t recall anyone complaining that they can’t understand my messages. They may not be correct but they are clear.

Altering the conventions doesn’t mean the end of the world. And – besides ­– we have been here before.

Prior to the invention of the printing press – there was no such thing as correct spelling, no single way of representing a word. (Shakespeare spelt his own name in many different ways. And while there is some debate about what he did and didn’t write – it has nothing to do with how his name was spelt.)

People then seemed to manage – not just with creative spelling, but with the absence of punctuation and capitals. The idea that there is only one way to spell a word, and punctuate an utterance – and that any variation is an error – only came in with the printing press: and with the commitment to standardisation and conformity.

‘Correctness’ however, is not such a big thing in the information age – where innovation and creativity are being highly valued; even the rhetoric of education these days encourages us to break out of that old conformist strait jacket.

Good writing and communication have always tested the limits, challenged conventions and stretched the possibilities. We just do it more quickly – with the assistance of spellcheck, predictive txts – and a vast range of other amazing tools that earlier writers and readers would have loved.


THE TROUBLE IS that we don’t have tests for these twenty-first century skills. Despite the allegations by established critics that we have all been dumbed down by the digital revolution – the problem is not that I have changed and lowered the standards; it is that so many of the educational policy makers and examiners have not kept pace with the transformational changes in communication.

We are testing the wrong things.

Examiners can still regard correct spelling and good handwriting as the basis for literacy testing (which is why you can’t take your iPad into exams. It would be cheating to abandon the pen and the dictionary). Too many people of influence continue to measure previous century print habits when students have moved on with the skills of the new millennium.

It’s not images of correct spelling words that fill today’s students heads; it’s how to make the right decision to get to the next level of the game, how to create a good ‘app’; how to come up with a cool solution. They aren’t immersed in the printed word, or perfect images of standardised spelling (as I once was); nor are they required – outside of educational circles – to engage in prolonged handwriting exercises.

But give them an iPhone or an iPad and they can be wizards at finding, assessing, collating, creating new videos, podcasts, graphics, solutions and explanations.

Proud parents point to their babies performing on iPhones – and upload the videos to prove it on YouTube. This is the starting point for those teenagers who can display that extraordinary hand eye coordination that makes their elders appear clumsy at a keyboard – and consigns handwriting to an earlier era.

It’s perfectly possible that a street sweeper would not be able to read and answer questions on a passage from Jane Austen – or indeed Centrelink forms (the meanings of which often elude me); but no problem with a sat-nav system – or downloading a YouTube tutorial that could demonstrate any skill required at work.


AND WE DON’T need examiners to tell us who has the appropriate skills.

In a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, education editor, Anna Patty[4] quoted Professor Barry McGraw, head of the national curriculum authority trying to explain the latest results that indicated the reading abilities of bright students were in decline. And that it was at least clear that this could be because schools were focusing on ‘basic achievements’ rather than teaching the more sophisticated readings of more complex texts – such as Jane Austen or Centrelink forms.

I don’t think that teaching fifteen-year-olds more sophisticated readings of more complex (print) texts is the issue; nor do I believe that the skills of bright readers suddenly decline.(And I don’t believe my language skills have deteriorated because I now use a screen rather than read or write books.)

But I do think it is more than likely that teenagers have moved beyond the printed word to the fast moving flickers of the screen, where they become skilled at scanning, skimming, sifting, sorting and selecting their own digital ‘bits’ to make their own new ‘messages’.

And once you have started to create your own ‘messages’ it’s a bit of a bore to be asked to follow some one else’s and to learn to spell – to pass a test you won’t face outside an educational institution. But that’s another story.


[1] David Crystal, txtng the gr8 db8; 2008, Oxford University Press, p14

[2] Crystal, p 9

[3] Melvyn Bragg, 2003, The Adventures of English, Hodder & Stoughton, UK

[4] Anna Patty, Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Focus on basic skills blamed for decline in reading standards’, 21September 2010, http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/focus-on-basic-skills-blamed-for-decline-in-reading-standards-20100920-15ju1.html

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About the author

Dale Spender

Dale Spender is a writer, teacher and feminist scholar. She is the author of Man Made Language (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), and is writing...

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