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Nonononono! Spelling NEEDS Rules! — A guest post by Dan Hoyt

*We have posters lined up for rotating on Fridays (we’re going to put them on a little lazy Susan!) but me being me, I haven’t set up the relay/schedule yet.  So, last week Dorothy Grant offered herself as a tribute, and this week my own husband had something to get off his chest.  So… Please give a warm MGC welcome to the smarter Hoyt, my husband Dan.*

Nonononono! Spelling NEEDS Rules! — by Dan Hoyt

I felt someone’s presence in my bedroom as I was nodding off to sleep one night in July a couple years ago. I still remember the incident as if it were yesterday. The oddly familiar scent of Axe deodorant wafted over me, and I awakened instantly, my eyes snapping open.

“Lowme,” someone said inches from my nose. I recoiled automatically, jerking my head deeper into my pillow and whacking my headboard in the process. “Ayemiou.”

My heart stalled for a couple seconds as my eyes adjusted to the dim moonlight and the stranger’s face coalesced. “Well, you look like me,” I said aloud, with the uncomplicated innocence of comprehension only a dreamer can muster when faced with the impossible. “Only older.”

“Stroo,” the older gentleman said, nodding vigorously. “Yunemee saim.”

I had to admit, he did look a lot like me. Somewhere deep in my subconscious, I realized this had to be a dream, and in dreams anything is possible. Maybe he really was me.

“What do you want?” I blurted out, barely audible over the thundering of my heart.

He stared at me for a while, and cocked his head to the side a little, as if considering his answer for the first time. Curiously unfazed, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to go back to sleep when Future Me spoke suddenly.

“Surreal portin’ hugo.”

Warily cracking one eye barely enough to see Future Me, I croaked, “Go where? Work? Why’s it so important?”

Future Me shook his head slowly. “No,” he said, drawing out the ‘o.’ “Movie.”

I shut my eye diffidently. “You want me to go to a movie?”

“Nono. Movie.”

“Got it. A movie. Which one?” It escaped me what movie could possibly be of such importance to warrant time travel, but I admit I was a bit intrigued with the prospect. Still, I refused to open my eyes again.

“Nonononono! Moo. Vee. En.” Future Me sounded irritated at this point.

With an audible sigh of exasperation, he scrabbled on my bedside for the pen and notebook he knew he’d find there. (It’s a writer thing, you won’t understand unless you’re a writer. Fortunately, Future Me was, well, me, so he understood.) Angry, scratching marks, punctuated by the occasional expletive (some things never change), filled the silence for the next few minutes. At last, Future Me slammed the pad down on my chest and chucked my chin to get my attention. “Reed.”

When I opened my eyes, Future Me was gone. Clutching at my chest, I found the pad he’d left behind. It read, simply: “Yoogo mooveen Denverr. Surreal portin. Go.”

#

July 20, 2012, standing outside a movie theater in Aurora, CO, for a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, I contemplated Future Me. I still didn’t know why he was so insistent on my going to a movie in Denver, but eventually I gave in and here I stood, waiting in line to buy tickets. Not all that interested in this particular movie, I was swayed to the decision by my teenaged son’s pleas – and a nagging compulsion to do something to recapture some of the father-son bonding time that seemed to slip away with each year as he grew more independent. Was it worth it? Would he even remember years from now? Reluctantly, I purchased tickets, then imagined erasing the worry lines from my forehead before turning back to my son with a wide grin, waving the tickets theatrically.

“Got ‘em.”

#

Future Me scanned the timelines. One in particular caught his attention, and he gasped.

“Nonononono!” he said aloud, startling several nearby time travelers monitoring their multiverse missions. “Moo. Vee,” he said slowly, adding a final, exaggerated, “En.” He shook his head sadly. “No. Ho. Em. NOT show!”

Behind him, his instructor chuckled. “Badrun. Yoodie.” Future Me’s mission monitor winked off.

-End-

#

Every now and then, somebody decides it would be a great idea to abandon standardized spelling. What’s most baffling is when another writer champions this idea. One academic/writer, Oberlin associate professor Anne Trubek, summed up her argument – based primarily on the fact that texting shorthand is understandable (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2012/01/st_essay_autocorrect/) – with, “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.” Then she concludes with, “Let’s make our own rules.”

Nonononono! Ignoring the obvious irony that nearly her entire article (save the title and one short sentence) uses standardized spelling, how can someone so learned not see the contradiction between those two statements? If the point of standardized spelling is to aid communication and ensure clarity, then surely that means spelling rules have value, right? Yet, she infers those rules are unneeded. Huh? Did I miss something?

Sure, we can puzzle out that “L8R” is equivalent to “later” or that “UR” is equivalent to “you’re” (or maybe “your”), but that’s only because we have spelling rules that we can do this. If we abandon the rules entirely, how mangled would communication become?

Sounds alone are not enough. Anybody who’s heard a foreigner speaking Berlitz-English attempt to pronounce a phrase that’s not quite right quickly realizes that English is littered with linguistic landmines.

Not all miscommunications would result in the disastrous outcome in my example above, of course. But they might – is that really progress? Sacrificing innocent lives for the sake of convenience? What hubris!

Beyond the case where words sound similar enough to cause confusion (e.g. “movie in Denver” vs. “moving Denver” in my example), there are words (or groups of words) in the English language which sound exactly the same (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homophone) but have different meanings. For example, “stuff he knows” vs. “stuffy nose” or “some others” vs “some mothers” (http://www.fun-with-words.com/nym_oronyms.html) could cause some confusion. In these cases, context is essential for proper decoding, but without some kind of rules guiding us, context is meaningless.

As writers, we want our readers to have a positive experience when reading our work. If readers have to work to puzzle out what writers are trying to convey – or are unable to do it entirely, as I frequently find to be the case when reading comments on YouTube – then the reader has a negative experience, and the writer fails to communicate effectively. Do you know what they call a writer who consistently fails to communicate effectively? Washed up (assuming the writer ever gets started, that is).

As writers, we want to capture our readers, not repel them! Abandoning spelling rules works against our goals, so why in the world would we want to do that?

Take a stand for progress! Spell correctly!

83 Comments
  1. Dan, I don’t know whether to yell at you or applaud. The yelling comes from trying to read — and understand — the first part of your post pre-coffee. I kept wondering if I’d forgotten English. The applauding comes from both the desire to read the rest of what future you wants to tell you as well as for the real purpose of the post. We do need spelling rules just as we need punctuation rules. I’m sure there is more of a comment in my head somewhere but it’s not coming out until I’ve had more coffee. Until then, thanks for a fun, if someone frustrating, start to the day 😉

    February 14, 2014
    • I’m with Amanda. I see the purpose behind the first part of your post (and I certainly agree that we need spelling rules), but that was painful. And no coffee. Glurg.

      February 14, 2014
      • I’m afraid I couldn’t get the message, even after tea. Maybe I need coffee. What was past self supposed to do?

        February 14, 2014
        • I think he was supposed to teleport Denver further away from the Yellowstone caldera. Or maybe just to a warmer climate.

          February 14, 2014
          • Teleporting Denver never crossed my mind, but I love it!

            February 14, 2014
        • Tell him to move to Denver — I had this issue. I have this problem, due to English not being my native language. Any of you who transcribe dialect in your books, be aware you’re throwing all ESL — like me — or all hearing impaired people — again, like me — out of your story, possibly forever.

          February 14, 2014
          • It’s just as easy to describe how a character speaks. Easier, usually. The one-eyed sailor with forearms bulging from a lifetime of hauling lines, skin burnt to the color of aged teak (or coffee, or mahogany, or, or, or…) by toil under distant suns speaks in nautical jargon, his voice roughened by decades breathing the salt kiss of the waves.

            February 14, 2014
            • I’ve got a sudden urge for spinach….

              February 14, 2014
          • TXRed #

            I use one sentence, so the reader gets the idea, then have another character comment on the odd accent/dialect, then move on.

            February 14, 2014
            • Kate Paulk #

              I tend to keep it to dropped letters and patterns of speech rather than trying to render the dialect/accent.

              February 15, 2014
        • As Sarah said, Future Me was trying to tell Past Me to move to Denver. I left unclear what the real purpose was, intentionally, to underscore how confusing it can be to decipher “creative” spelling, only leaving enough clues to infer the goal. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if the technique would work, but it seems to be successful, so I’m happy with the outcome. 😀

          February 14, 2014
          • I couldn’t really tell from the creative spelling, so I kept reading. And then, magically, it all made sense. I think it’s called Context. Excuse me, I must sacrifice handwritten poetry upon the sacred altar…

            February 14, 2014
    • I just got to trying to do it, and although I figured out it must be phonetic of some sort– no joy.

      February 14, 2014
  2. Yes! Spelling rules forever! I can read typo fluently, I assure friends in private, fast-moving chats, and I frequently commit it myself. That does NOT mean I want to read it in everyday life, when I can’t ask for clarification. “Did you mean to write glitter? Because you spelled it with a c on the front and that’s a terribly freudian slip…” (With a nod to Kate Paulk, from whom I shamelessly stole that joke).

    February 14, 2014
  3. sanfordbegley #

    U H8tr U. IM 😦 u no likee 3leet sp33k

    February 14, 2014
    • “Excuse me, Stewardess. I speak L33T.”

      February 14, 2014
      • W00t! N3w A1rplan3 m0v13!

        February 14, 2014
      • Junpei’s waiting for you at the gate.

        February 14, 2014
        • Your coffee: it requires SCIENCE!!

          February 14, 2014
        • I still mourn not fitting my “fear the cute ones” shirt anymore. (My four year old wears it, now. Sigh.)

          February 14, 2014
          • For me, it’s now a toss up as to whether Megatokyo or Dresden Codak updates first. It’s almost as annoying as checking up on Sequential Art and see it hasn’t updated.

            February 15, 2014
            • TXRed #

              Another Dresden Codak fan! I have the Historical Preenactment Society and Evolution Kills shirts.

              February 15, 2014
              • I’m not sure if I’m a fan, since it so slow and there’s so little of it.

                I used to really like Sinfest, but now it’s written like Tatsuya Ishida is dating a Women’s Studies major and trying to get somewhere with her by it.

                February 16, 2014
                • Amen to that. I still keep up with it, but now instead of having someone to root for, everyone’s just gotten really REALLY angsty-weird/obsessed with the patriarchy.

                  February 16, 2014
            • It’s been so long since I’ve read Megatokyo, I have no idea what’s going on now. But I do still have a “h4ck n4k3d” shirt.

              February 16, 2014
  4. Ellyll #

    Heh. Next time I jump up on that particular soapbox, I can just point to your article. I loved it. 🙂

    February 14, 2014
    • Thank you. It needed to be said. Again.

      February 14, 2014
  5. I’m all for eliminating spelling errors. But not by pitching all the rules in the trash. Please.

    February 14, 2014
    • It’s like ending crime by eliminating all the laws.

      February 15, 2014
  6. That’s what really annoyed me about reading “The Elephant’s Journey”.(https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11478013-the-elephant-s-journey) As far as I know, he didn’t misspell any words, he just eschewed using punctuation and capitalization.

    Well, not totally, he just used periods where most people would use paragraphs, and paragraphs where most people would use scene changes.

    And, no, it’s not an artifact from being translated from Portuguese.

    If I hadn’t been reading it for a book club, I wouldn’t have finished it. Conventions are there for a reason.

    February 14, 2014
  7. robfornow #

    I didn’t get it until Sarah posted the translation. Since I began editing my first drafts, it has become a priority to be accurate in spelling. One of the major problems I find since I rely on spell check to catch the most obvious errors is the ‘then’ ‘than’ problem. Sentence structure points out that error most of the time. I do purposely misspell some words to make a point sometimes. Like a new immigrant may say “I luv the USA” or a backwoodsman may say “Whots that thingy?” but, no sentence should have more than two ‘accent words.’ in a conversation and they have to be in context or the whole message is lost.

    February 14, 2014
    • Excellent! You were SUPPOSED to be confused! Regional speech is a whole ‘nother can o’ worms, though.

      February 14, 2014
  8. Many may, or may not be familiar with the “Foxfire books. (Noit Foxfier, although she may be a good writer. :-)) A series of books written by/about Appalachian hill folk. The problem is that when they “translated” to standard American, they actually lost a great deal of information. I grew uop around people speaking “Deep Southern, and ‘Hill Folk.'” The “translator,” obviously didn’t and had no idea what was lost. Screeeech. I do agree that “dialect” should be absolutely relevant to the story/information, or don’t use it.

    February 14, 2014
    • Dan Lane #

      I’m familiar with them. And there are members of my family those books made so mad they spit whenever “Foxfire books” is mentioned.

      Y’all can do a lot with a litte, dialect-wise. Maybe one or two words, here and there, to direct the reader’s attention. Make sure to “yes, ma’am; yes, sir” your elders. Don’t sass. Do use contractions. Mention the drawl (but don’t draw it out on paper). Simple stuff, try not to use big words too much. That sort of thing.

      The main problem I have with said books is they lost a lot of the context when they put things down on paper. Context is what turns moonshine into good corn liquor (different phrarsing adds color), why you make ‘shine when the moon’s full and run shine when it’s just a slender crescent.

      February 14, 2014
    • They were probably in the back of my head when I fastened on the Magic card that birthed my name.

      I wish I could write as many books, and sell as many copies, as those!

      February 14, 2014
  9. Dan, your thing about things sounding the same happens to singers all the time.
    My madrigals group sings “Weep, O mine eyes and cease not.” We try every which way possible to enunciate so we don’t “weep O mine eyes and see snot”!
    No problems with reading it correctly, but hearing it correctly …. take away spelling rules and we would lose the reading too!

    February 14, 2014
    • Synova #

      And thus… printed programs that include the lyrics.

      🙂

      February 14, 2014
    • Kate Paulk #

      Oh lord. This reminds me of the time the choir I used to belong to was reduced to helpless laughter for… oh, the best part of a quarter hour.

      Picture an Australian choir. Accents run the full range from heavy “Strine” (think Crocodile Hunter) to sounding almost English. Belting out the Brukner Te Deum’s Aeternam Fac at volume.

      Yes, “fac” came out much as you’d expect.

      Choral director pointed this out in a rather pained tone.

      Choir pauses. Snickering from the men. Giggles from the women. Shortly after, complete and utter dissolution into helpless laughter. We had to switch to rehearsing a different section for a while because we cracked up every time we hit “aeternam fac”

      February 15, 2014
      • Kate,

        Thank you for sharing that. So, did the choir ever get the enunciation to meet the choir director’s approval, or did he just take what he could get?

        February 15, 2014
  10. Christopher M. Chupik #

    This post promotes grammarnormative thinking! I’m outrageously outraged!

    February 14, 2014
    • Guilty. And Proud of It. I’m obviously a racist.

      February 14, 2014
      • and sexist. And patriarchal and…

        February 14, 2014
        • Oh, Sarah, you pervert! How can you love a man like that!

          February 14, 2014
          • er.. He’s a mathematician. I have a fetish. Don’t judge me. it would be slut shaming.

            February 14, 2014
            • Right. I must be tolerant. And . . . refrain from thinking up math jokes.
              Or worse, puns.

              February 14, 2014
  11. sanfordbegley #

    I think I will, not quite disagree with Dan but, say that I would like to see the spelling rules simplified. For instance, get rid of the letter c and use either s or k. Do what many languages do and have standard pronunciation for each vowel. I still want standardized spelling rules but, would like to see them more logically organized. Other than getting rid of C and Q there is little that I can say would be good things but, I know they are existent. Of course this is a pipe dream because, even if someone could come up with the rules to simplify spelling it would be nearly impossible to get the majority of people to change

    February 14, 2014
    • They did that in Portuguese. The result? I now don’t understand written Portuguese.

      February 14, 2014
      • TXRed #

        They’re doing it in German too, mostly because the ß character makes some coding go haywire. The radicals want to drop the formal “Sie” also, but I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.

        February 15, 2014
        • That’s also one of the problems my coworker had to deal with. In the rules that computers use (don’t know how it’s done in real life), the ß character lower-cases to “ss”, but “ss” does not uppercase to “ß”, so it was failing a match check.

          February 15, 2014
          • Not quite: Esszet (ß) is a lowercase letter which—in most instances—uppercases to SS. Except sometimes in names; to quote from the Unicode proposal (n2888):

            Herr Weise is not the same as Herr Weiße and not the same as Herr Weisse. […] German authorities issue passports by using capitals only.

            What would happen in such cases is that the lowercase esszet would be used in an all-caps setting: “If Herr Weiße gets his document handed out, he find himself officially named WEIßE.”

            So they went and defined the “Capital ẞ”. The default upper-casing of “ß” is still “SS”, since that’s correct most of the time, but there’s an option to use “ẞ” instead when it’s appropriate.

            The funny thing is that the language folks are busy trying to simplify things just as the computer folk are figuring out how to handle the original complicated ways. (See also monotonic vs. polytonic Greek.)

            February 16, 2014
            • Yeah. I still spell German with the esstzet.

              February 16, 2014
              • And of course there’s the regional variation (IIRC, German vs. Swiss) whether the esszet is “ss” or, as its name suggests, “sz”. (Actually, “ſs” vs. “ſz”.)

                February 16, 2014
            • Oh, well, I was trying to remember a second-hand account of an online discussion anyway. Not surprising I got it backwards. All I know for certain is that, because it’s not reversible, the pattern match was not working correctly, due to the changing case they were doing to simplify things.

              Thanks for straightening that out.

              February 16, 2014
    • Birthday girl #

      Metric spelling?

      February 14, 2014
    • Synova #

      The problem is that language changes. A whole lot of the weirdness in English is because it’s written in a phonetic way (as opposed to ideogramatically… if that’s a word, thank goodness we don’t have to memorize a million ideograms) and the way people speak, the sounds they make, shift over time and geography. Even if we periodically normalize spelling over time, we’ve still got the issue of the Southern lady moving to Chicago, taking her long-haired cat to the groomer for a “line” cut (apparently shaving the belly) and getting back a shaved cat with a mane and puff at the end of its tail. Or me and my cousin flirting with a guy from Illinois who explained that he was a farmer, and we both thought… a former what?

      February 14, 2014
      • See, this is exactly why I didn’t even get into regional dialects!

        February 14, 2014
        • There’s one example I can think of off-hand of a regional dialect being reflected in spelling: Scotts, which I suspect was invented to extend the unintelligibility of the brogue to written language.

          February 16, 2014
    • I don’t have a problem with simplification of the rules, so long as there are coherent rules to follow!

      February 14, 2014
    • The rules have changed over time. One of my coworkers had to search out some information on older rules, because a data import script was not working right. Turns out, there were older characters which had different rules in the past, and it was choking on them. One of those looked something like an “f”, but was pronounced like a double “s”. You can see this in old books and writings. You find that a lot of words which are spelled differently than they are today are actually pronounced almost the same.

      February 14, 2014
      • Kate Paulk #

        Yup. Spoken English from as far back as Chaucer is perfectly understandable. Written… eek. The phonetic shift that happened in (if I remember right) the Tudor/Stewart era left the older works almost unreadable.

        February 15, 2014
      • We rarely see “plough” or “hiccough” any more, and I doubt our kids (or grandkids) will remember seeing “doughnut”. There probably are others in the midst of changing that I’m not aware of.

        On Fri, Feb 14, 2014 at 8:33 PM, madgeniusclub wrote:

        > Wayne Blackburn commented: “The rules have changed over time. One of > my coworkers had to search out some information on older rules, because a > data import script was not working right. Turns out, there were older > characters which had different rules in the past, and it was choking o” >

        February 15, 2014
      • The long s, “ſ”, is a purely coſmetic variation on the letter “s”, with rules regarding when the one or the other is to be uſed. Theſe rules, of courſe, changed with the paſsing of time (ſo hiſtorical imitations are adviſed to reſearch the matter carefully) until printers got fed up with having yet another punch to deal with and decided to use the small form universally.

        February 16, 2014
  12. Arwen Riddle #

    I just wish they would stop putting K in place of C for business names. Clean does not need to be spelled with a K.

    February 14, 2014
  13. Seriously I try– I really try to spell properly and then I have brain farts. Then I read the brain farts as good. ARG… dang the chemo.

    February 14, 2014
    • I do that without the addition of chemo.

      February 14, 2014
      • So you are just made that way?

        February 14, 2014
        • Yep

          February 14, 2014
          • Actually I was thinking of Jessica Rabbit– “I am just drawn that way” 😉

            February 14, 2014
            • I wasn’t sure if that was where you were going or not.

              February 14, 2014
              • It was the first movie my hubby and I saw together– we still quote from it 😉

                February 15, 2014
  14. Synova #

    I’d also say that spelling adds to meaning because it tends to preserve the origins of English words. When I’m reading and run into unfamiliar words I’m often able to guess what they mean because the word parts and root have distinct meanings that can be mixed and matched.

    February 14, 2014
    • Yes. This is my position, too.

      February 14, 2014
    • I do this extensively, and frequently have people asking me how I can understand something that I’ve never seen before.

      February 14, 2014
  15. TXRed #

    I’m a victim of phonics (huked on fonix did not work for mi). I write what I hear, which is great for Latin, Spanish, and German. But spell-check programs cower when they sense my fingers on a keyboard, attempting to use English.

    February 14, 2014
  16. Ray #

    There was a wonderful short story with an incomprehensible title (it might have been in Analog during the Campbell era) about “simplifying” the English language. It proposed to make one small change a year until the desired end was reached. As the story went on it incorporated the changes. You could read the story from beginning to end and understand it, but don’t try to skip ahead, you would be lost.

    Once you finished the story you could read and understand the title. The title if translated back into normal English was something like “Mayhem in the Classroom”.

    Anyone know the correct title? I would love to find a copy of it.

    February 14, 2014
    • I don’t know the title, but I thought Mark twain had a version of that.

      February 15, 2014
  17. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    a) Racism!
    b) The first rule of spelling is that you don’t talk about spelling.
    c) If spelling stays out of my way, I won’t have to hurt it.
    d) All forms of language reform are crypto-totalitarianism. Noah Webster was a tyrant.
    e) The way I say words is often worse than my spelling. This doesn’t mean I couldn’t stand to work on both.

    February 14, 2014
  18. Alpheus #

    While I was in Graduate School, I caught the “simplify the alphabet” bug, and decided that the best way to simplify was to create an entirely new alphabet. In the process of doing so, I discovered that vowels in particular are wily–they can change in all sorts of unexpected ways–and that if I went *too* phonetic, I would literally be transcribing dialects.

    My enthusiasm for the project lost steam, though, when I thought about my Adviser’s papers, and how, after studying a certain paper for my dissertation, my Adviser said “Congratulations! You are one of perhaps four people who understand this paper.” I realized that if we moved to a Simplified Alphabet, no one would be able to read these papers, let alone understand them.

    Now, if I were an English PhD student studying post-modernism, this wouldn’t be a major loss. But these are *math* papers, so it’s quite possible that twenty or a hundred years from now, someone is going to stumble across this work and say, “Hey! This is *exactly* what I need to understand this physical or biological process!” and go on to do something fantastic.

    Shortly afterwards, I saw a cereal box that said “The Egyptians developed a phonetic alphabet, but it was never widely used, and no one knows why.” I knew why: because everyone who took the trouble of learning how to read wanted to read what society had written down. (Later I discovered a second reason: their phonetic “alphabet” was hieroglyphic as well, which makes it a pain to try to write something.)

    Much later, I learned that mainland China’s efforts to simplify Mandarin Chinese has had precisely this effect: no one in mainland China can read older texts. Perhaps this is of no concern for Communists though…and likely, this is why the Taiwanese aren’t jumping over themselves to abandon the old system.

    February 18, 2014

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