"On Illiteracy"

© 2000 by Andersen Silva

At the risk of offending some people (and we all know how upset THAT makes me ;) I must strenuously voice my dissatisfaction with the state of writing in the United States, and possibly further afield.

Let's get the excuses out of the way. Firstly, no one is perfect, least of all me! I make spelling and grammatical errors, too; I just don't make them as frequently, and if I'm unsure while writing, I try to check. If something does slip through my self-editing, and it's brought to my attention later, I acknowledge and correct the error expeditiously.

Secondly, no, not everyone writes for the sake of writing the way I do. Of those who do, not everyone is concerned with following the letter of the law when it comes to a work of art; poetic license is a real entity, and I begrudge no writer the right to use or abuse any conventions in a work of fiction or poetry or songwriting.

Thirdly, some words are more difficult to spell than others, and not everyone has the time, inclination, or possibly even ability to memorize multitudes of words, and the rules that sometimes govern their spelling in the English language.

Fourthly, punctuation can sometimes be tricky, contractions used verbally are not always considered literally, and the myriad of homonyms in English can cause much confusion. Is it "your" or "you're?" How about "yore?" When one says that one "could of gone to the movies," doesn't one really mean one "could HAVE gone to the movies?" Think. The contraction is could've.

Fifthly, the English language is a bitch. While I have more of a mastery over it than most, I freely admit that it's a hodge-podge of words and phrases from many different etymological sources, with many different rules, many of which have exceptions, and even I have to pause sometimes to think, "Well, which word, or symbol, or case, goes there?"

But there's the source of my irritation. I pause. I look for the correct form. And when I make a mistake, I correct it if possible. To me, the way I write, whether it's on my Web site, or in a printed bit of fiction, or on a hand-scribbled note, or in an E-mail, represents me. I have too much self-respect to let a little laziness get in the way of a proper document.

Increasingly, though, I see that this is not the case with so many people around me. I've already lamented (in Vitriol) the fact that I encounter so many professionally-printed signs with typos and misspellings in them (including one in Fair Lawn I saw recently, marking a parking space for "handicaped" people). In business letters and E-mails, it's the same thing. Corporation presidents not only don't often spell well, they don't feel they need to. "That's what my administrative assistant is for!" And, of course, often enough she can't spell, either...

Yes, Microsoft Word has a great spell-checker. Fine, if one is using Word and utilizing the feature. But that should be a safety net, to catch a few mistakes that slipped past, not a replacement for one's brain. I see so many stupid mistakes on IRC. Discounting the ones that are obviously being made by people for whom English is not the primary language, it's a sad commentary on either the desire or the ability, perhaps both, to present oneself intelligently, concisely, and respectably.

I have fallen into the habit of using some of the Net's literary shortcuts. brb = be right back / rotfl = rolling on the floor laughing / imho = in my humble opinion etc. I often use smilies, or emoticons, as well.  ;)  I have not, however, fallen prey to the ridiculous usage of numbers to replace words or parts of phrases (2 in place of to or too, 4 in place of for, 1 2 in place of want to, etc.). This is another annoying symptom. Keep oversimplifying, and eventually one will lose what ability to spell and write one has.

Am I making much ado about nothing? Yes and no. Certainly there are more important things to worry about, both in my own life and in the big picture. But self is comprised of many smaller components, and, in my view, the way one presents oneself is one of the more important components. I wouldn't pepper a correspondence (however informal) with misspellings any more than I would meet a business or social partner wearing an ill-fitting muumuu and mismatched hiking boots. Casual and sloppy are worlds apart. It's the semantics, stupid.