In defense of spell-checking

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In a post a few days ago ("Why you shouldn't use spellcheckers", 4/7/2009), Bill Poser argued that "if English had a decent writing system there would be no use for [spellchecking] software". I'm no defender of our current writing system — it makes life much harder than it should be for writers and readers alike, especially in the early stages of learning. But I think that Bill is overselling the potential benefits of reform.

Even for a language with a "decent writing system", a good spellchecker can be useful in catching typographical errors — slips of the finger or the brain. But there's a deeper argument for the defense. An alphabetic writing system can be lexically consistent only if it adopts and enforces a fairly elaborate set of spelling conventions, which people will not know merely by virtue of being able to speak the language being written. And therefore — if you want the same word to be spelled the same way every time it's written — a copy-editor that understands and applies those conventions is performing a valuable service. To the extent that a good spellchecker can do the same thing, it's also useful.

Of course, it's not obvious that a writing system needs to be "lexically consistent" in this sense. During Tudor and Elizabethan times, people wrote English in a catch-as-catch-can way. This was not just a matter of variation from person to person — the same person might spell the same word in different ways at different times, sometimes within the same paragraph. Thus according to Karl Elze's Biography of William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh signed his own name variously as Rauley and Ralegh as well as Raleigh; and "Edward Alleyn made use of the forms Aleyn, Alleyn, Allen, and Allin".  Elze asserts that

The name Marlow is met with in ten different forms, Throckmorton in sixteen, Gascoigne in nineteen, Percey in twenty-three, Cholmondeley in twenty-five, Percival in twenty-nine, and Bruce in thirty-three different forms. And yet the name of Shakespeare is the one which exhibits the greatest variety of spellings, no less than fifty-five different forms having been counted [citation to Halliwell, Life of Shakespeare, pp. 278-283]; […] In the records of the Corporation of Stratford the name of John Shakespeare, the poet's father, occurs 166 times, and in the following fourteen different forms:–

1. Shackesper 4 times
2. Shackespere 3 times
3. Shacksper 4 times
4. Shackspere 2 times
5. Shakespere 13 times
6. Shaksper 1 times
7. Shakspere 6 times
8. Shakspeyr 17 times
9. Shakysper 4 times
10. Shakyspere 9 times
11. Shaxpeare 69 times
12. Shaxper 8 times
13. Shaxpere 18 times
14. Shaxpeare 9 times

And of course, it's not just proper names that are variable. In the LION database, works by writers between 1500 and 1600 spell "clothes" in five different ways that I could find:

clothes cloths clothys cloathes cloaths
429 11 8 74 17
79.6% 2% 1.5% 13.7% 3.2%

And LION's variants for "women" in that same period include [women | vveomen | vvoemen | vvomen | weemen | wemen | weomen | woemen | womenne | wommen | woomen | wymen | wymmen].

This lack of lexical consistency didn't prevent great works from being written and read. (Of course, it didn't get in the way of drivel, either.) Variable spelling obviously creates problems for indexing, record-keeping, looking things up in dictionaries, and so forth. On the other hand, standardizing spelling creates a significant additional task for school-children. I don't know what arguments were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to support the efforts to standardize English spelling — the contemporary discussions that I've been able to find seem simply to assume that it's obviously a Good Thing, without engaging any counter arguments in a serious way. For the purposes of this post, I'm going to assume this same conclusion, similarly without argument.

At this point, savvy readers may be muttering to themselves that the devil-may-care spelling of Elizabethan times, and the opaque complexity of the standard system that eventually replaced it, should not be taken as typical. The original anarchy was due to the unfortunate residue of the Great Vowel Shift and other sound changes in English, as well as a melange of spelling conventions borrowed from Anglo-Saxon, French, Dutch, Latin, and wherever. The subsequent standardization process was not the top-to-bottom re-design that was needed, but rather a quasi-random codification of chaos.

This is true, if exaggerated. But a more rational process doesn't generally yield lexical consistency either. Consider the case of Somali. The current writing system was adopted as standard in 1972 (back in the days when Somalia had a government), and taught to a generation of Somalis, who became one of the most literate nations in the area. The correspondence with the phonology of the language is simple and transparent, and as a medium of literacy, this system has been a big success — it seems to be easy for native speakers to learn to read and write it.

However, the result is certainly not lexical consistency. Thus on the web, I find the Somali word for "friends" spelled in at least six different ways:

saaxiibo 6050 83.3%
saaxiibbo 946 13%
saxibo 190 2.6%
saaxibbo 47 0.6%
saxiibbo 28 0.4%
saxibbo 5 0.1%

At least according to the principles given in Zorc and Osman's Somali-English Dictionary, the "correct" spelling (and pronunciation) ought to be the second of those, "saaxibbo".

I find the Somali word for "health" spelled in at least seven different ways on the web — and some of the non-standard spellings are on medical-advice web sites, in government information brochures, and so on:

caafimaad 210,000 88.9%
caafimad 22,800 9.7%
cafimad 2080 0.9%
cafimaad 734 0.3%
caafiimaad 116 0.05%
caafiimad 9 0.04%
cafiimad 419 0.2%

(I believe that in this case, the most common spelling/pronunciation is also the standard one.)

Some of these may be mere typos, but others arise (I think) because some Somali dialects have lost or are losing the distinction between long and short vowels.And you shouldn't be surprised to learn that this is just the tip of the dialect-variation iceberg. As Zorc and Osman's front matter explains, "the student will come across many differences in vocabulary and in pronunciation, and the latter will often show up in writing. Allowances must be made for these variations." This same sort of issue exists in English to an even greater extent, even if we limit ourselves to variant pronunciations of standard formal forms of the language. As a result, even the most rationally-designed writing system faces a choice between lexical consistency and faithfulness to local pronunciation.

Another source of spelling variation in Somali is morphophonological change in context. Thus as a fact of pronunciation (pretty much across dialects, I think), a final short -e will become -a to match the vowel of a suffix. Thus bare "teacher" becomes barayaal "teachers"; and according to the standard writing system, 'a' should be written rather than 'e' in these cases. In Somali text on the web, however, "bareyaal" is somewhat commoner (337) than "barayaal" (241).

This sort of thing — where faithfulness to pronunciation points in one direction, and consistent spelling of a morpheme across contexts points in a different direction — is very common, in Somali and in almost every other language of the world, including of course English.

I'll mention just one more class of problem for the design of alphabetic writing systems. This is the (within-variety) case where X and Y are in general distinct, but not in context C; and the merged (or anyway non-distinct) segment in context C is phonetically somewhere in between X and Y. Should you spell it X, or should you spell it Y? In most contemporary dialects of English, the distinction between /i/ and /ɪ/ is neutralized in front of /ŋ/. Thus the contrast between "keen" and "kin" doesn't have any corresponding pair "keeng" and "king". But how should the vowel in "king" be spelled? In some varieties of English, it's clearly kin-like, while in other varieties, it's clearly keen-like; and sometimes it's about half way in between.

Therefore, if you reform English spelling so that /i/ and /ɪ/ are written in a consistent way, and take the view that people should do what comes naturally, you're going to get variable spellings for "king" (and all other words containing the same rhyme). In order to get a consistent outcome, you'd need to decide on one or the other, purely as a matter of convention, and teach people what to do. (And fix what they write when they do the wrong thing anyhow.)

The problem is much worse when the degree of merger and the pronunciation of the outcomes are more variable. In the case of English vowels before /r/ and /l/, there are people for whom Mary, merry, marry, and Murray are all the same, as well as people for whom they're all different. Likewise for col, call, cowl, coil, Cal, etc.  And then there's the whole r-ful/r-less business.

It's possible that lexical consistency isn't worth the trouble — lack of it doesn't seem to have prevented 16th- and 17th-century English writers from expressing themselves effectively. But if you want the same word to be spelled the same way every time it's written, then like it or not, you're in the business of establishing, teaching, and enforcing arbitrary conventions. And a well-designed and well-implemented spell-checker will be a big help.


  1. Uly said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    Spelling reform isn't totally useless.

    If all we did was eliminate letters that are in all – or nearly all – dialects silent and without function, such as the s in island or the b in debt or the k in know, then we'd be doing our first graders a great service.

    Messing with vowels is, as you demonstrated, a sure way to annoy everybody. But we could at least fix some of the problems we have with the consonants.

    [(myl) The existing English spelling system is a very bad one, at least for learners. But the cultural barriers to reform are so large that I don't think it's realistic to expect any significant reform to happen; we just have to make the best of it. ]

  2. Eli said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 11:10 am

    I've always been a fan of English's current spelling system. While I agree that having canonical spellings for words is generally a good thing, I don't think that spelling reform to the point of imbuing English with a phonetic spelling system is preferable (even discounting variations in pronunciation). The diachronic clues left to us in our spellings already provide a normalized spelling system, just one that helps in determining meanings of words rather than pronunciation.

    [(myl) It's possible that the historical residues are helpful to expert readers — but they certainly make it harder to learn to read, and much harder to learn to write. ]

  3. Jessica said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    But what about Spanish? Or Russian? Is it just that my familiarity with each is too basic for me to have run across alternative spellings? Because to me those two languages seem to have much more rational spelling systems than ours, or apparently, than the one for Somalia.

    [(myl) The Somali spelling system is much more transparent than the Russian one, which requires writers to figure out what the underlying or historical quality of unstressed vowels is, and requires readers to figure out where to put the stress so as to know how to pronounce the vowels. And then there are the jers… If spelling is lexically consistent (and I don't know the facts) then it's a tribute to the educational system, not to the intrinsic design of the writing system. ]

  4. mgh said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    I may be wrong, but my impression from this post is that the lion's share of spelling problems arise from how to represent vowel sounds.

    I was reading a review yesterday of a book called Writing, by Barry Powell, which the reviewer says "takes aim at what [Powell] regards as three long-established misunderstandings that bedevil the study of writing: that the purpose, origin, and function of writing are to represent speech; that writing originated in pictures; and that writing systems necessarily evolve over centuries of use toward more efficient phonetic representation, as in alphabets."

    I was especially struck by the following:

    He notes, "It is inaccurate to say that the inventor of the Greek alphabet 'added vowels' to a previously vowelless script, when the concept 'vowel' depends on how the Greek alphabet functions and not on objective features of human speech." Spectrograms of ordinary speech do not distinguish vowels from consonants: there is a continuous wave. The letters of the alphabet are what gives us the compelling idea that speech can be atomized into particles of sound.

    All of which leads me to ask, are spelling variations as common in written languages that don't represent vowels?

  5. Sili said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    But the cultural barriers to reform are so large that I don't think it's realistic to expect any significant reform to happen; we just have to make the best of it.

    The only solution is of course for educated people to embrace the controversy and liberate their spelling whenever possible.

    Sadly, I'm the bookish type, so I've learnt most of my English by reading. Which means that recognise 'complete words' rather than the sound that make them in many cases. And my pronunciations are correspondingly influenced by the spelling – thus I have /ɛ/ in "English", for instance.

    But consistency is overrated. Already I'm having trouble using Google in Danish, because many people split compound nouns à l'anglaise rather than write them compounded as in German.

    The solution is not to make people conform to norms, but to make machines smarter so that they can tolerate the variation.

    Not an easy thing to do, of course, as evidenced by Palmpilots (or whatever they're called), that require the user to learn a new way of writing if they want to be able to use handwritten input. Still the former task seems easier to me (but I'm neither a linguist nor a programmer).

    Still, I'd much rather we encouraged creativity rather than 'dumbing pupils down' to the level of computers.

  6. comwave said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    One interesting observation, which is a result of combined thoughts on a decent writing system and standardization and the implication (or semantics) of this post.
    (I guess this post also should be categorized under "Semantics," because it casts another interpretation of the last sentence of "Why you shouldn't use spell checkers.")

    I am not and was not trying to pinpoint typos. Just when I clicked the link in the first line of this post to check the original message, I accidentally noticed there's a space in "spell checkers" of the linked page's title. So, a simple check done.

    Three types of "spell check" writing systems are observed in the two posts – "Why you shouldn't use spell checkers" and "In defense of spell-checking."

    1. spell checker(s)
    2. spell-checking / spell-checker
    3. spellchecking / spellchecker(s)

    Merriam-Webster Online has one more type.

    4. spelling checker

    Check result: each of them is acceptable.
    No spell checkers needed here.

  7. Mary Kuhner said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    Are there any statistics on the effect of free spelling on reading speed? It has awful effects on mine, because it interferes with my word recognition routines and forces me to actually look at the word. But this may vary among readers. I wonder if I would ever learn to read free-spelled text as rapidly as I can read conventional text.

    [(myl) I don't know of any studies. I do think it's clear that for skilled readers, pretty much any deviation from expectations makes things harder. I'm a fan of Iain Banks, but I found his Feersum Endjinn unreadable, just because the eccentric (if quasi-phonetic) spelling made it such slow going. I guess you could check whether specialists in 16th-century literature can read material in the original erratic spelling as quickly as in a modernized or at least consistent form; but I don't think anyone has ever tried the experiment.]

    I think that a bit of spelling reform would be tolerable and worthwhile, but English can't be phonetic–English speakers don't all sound the same, so my phonetic spelling will be your misspelling. (I cannot distinguish my own name from "merry" and "marry"–can you? If so, you've got to conclude I'm spelling it wrong.) And the fight to get me to change how I pronounce my name strikes me as unwinnable….

    [(myl) You could construct a sort of consensus phonemic spelling for English, which would make life fairly easy for readers, in that the mapping from the spelling to their pronunciation would (almost) always be entirely predictable. Contextual mergers are no problem there — you just make sure to represent all the distinctions that have a reasonably large constituency among speakers. This still creates some problems for writers, since they would sometimes need to learn and remember distinctions that they don't make in speech — but it would be easier than the current system, which includes things like the fossilized remnants of Latin conjugation-distinctions in -ant vs. -ent endings, which no English speaker has ever pronounced differently, as far as I know. (Certainly no one does so today.)

    There is zero chance that such a system will be adopted in the forseeable future, but that's not because there's any special difficulty in designing one. ]

  8. Uly said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    Well, no, I don't think we can expect a spelling reform anytime soon. But it's on my list of things to do if/when I take over the world, right between making every Friday "Free Cake Friday" and improving national public transportation.

  9. Karen said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    @ Uly: Of course, if you eliminate the silent letters you exponentially increase the homographs which will make reading more difficult (your example – now – for instance).

    Also, fwiw (I personally think a lot) you eliminate etymological information, even if it's backformed (is det obviously akin to debit?).

    And surely you don't mean silent e (hat – hate, just to start).

    The key, I think, is to stop pretending that Phonics has much to do with it.

    [(myl) It's often asserted that the homographs in a more phonologically-transparent spelling system would make reading more difficult, but I'm not sure that there's much if any evidence for this view. We should be especially suspicious, I think, since there's no evidence that the (exactly corresponding) ambiguities in speech cause any real difficulty at all.

    One thing that we do know, though, is that attempts to teach kids to read English by recognizing whole words — variants of look-say and "whole language" methods — are a social disaster of epic proportions, resulting in functional illiteracy for 25-30% of the students who are thus afflicted.]

  10. Picky said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

    @ myl:

    Certainly something has gone wrong with the teaching of English – but then something seems to have gone wrong with the teaching of everything, doesn't it (from a supposed vantage point some decades down the line).

    My children were taught (by me and at school) by a combination of word recognition and phonics — and at the time it seemed a liberation from the old just-phonics approach. I still don't quite believe it was wrong, since a combination of word recognition and phonics is how we actually read. Perhaps the real danger in education (he pontificates) is the sudden swing from the extreme of one theory to the extreme of its opposite???

  11. Philip said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

    If we eliminated all "silent letters," we'd lose some important information. If sign were spelled sine (or should it be sin?), we wouldn't see its relationship to signal, signature, and signatory.

    And if spelling were to reflect pronunciation, wouldn't every dialect of English have a separate spelling system? That would make learning to read across dialects much more difficult. Try reading "Trainspotting," for example. Here's the first paragraph:

    The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sitting thair, focusing on the telly, trying no tae notice the cunt. He wis bringing me doon. Ah tried tae keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.

    Even this "phonetic" rendering probably isn't accurate. I'm no expert in Scottish English, but I'd imagine that the engma in -ing endings isn't always pronounced (elsewhere, "trainspotting" is spelled trainspottin), and certainly, "attention" should be spelled atenshun.

    Ay layk aur standrd spehlin sistm.

  12. Melissa said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 1:33 pm

    @mgh– Vowels and consonants are pretty easy to distinguish on a spectrogram (okay, maybe not the liquids and glides: r, l, w, y). I wasn't able to read the review you linked to, not being a paid subscriber, but I'm guessing that the reviewer has no training in speech science. Spectrograms don't look like "continuous waves" at all. You see short little noisy bursts for consonants, and long, regular periods for vowels. It's hard to believe that anyone could look at spectrographic analysis of speech and conclude that the concepts of vowels and consonants have no basis in objective reality.

  13. Picky said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    @ Philip: Depends, perhaps whether Scots is a language or a dialect. If it's a language, as some hold, it wouldn't have to follow any standard spelling for any Ameringlish Nurite. It could just keep to the old ways. Its speakers might not object to that.

  14. Dougal Stanton said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

    This is really interesting. It reminds me of something I read a couple years ago, not long after Scotland re-opened its parliament after a few centuries of dormancy. There was an understandable resurgence in national pride, culture etc and a lot of people wanted to bring more Scots into the school curriculum. The question, though — how do you teach a language which a lot of kids speak (to some degree) but no-one has a standard way of writing?

    I don't know what has happened in the end. Writers like Matthew Fitt have created modern Scots literature (But'n'Ben A-Go-Go is worth checking out for the novelty value alone: Scots cyberpunk) by mostly just going with what feels right. To read it properly you have to speak the same way Mr Fitt does. (This is exactly the same problem you find reading Feersum Endjinn but often with a less familiar vocabulary.)

    You go with what feels right. There is probably no better answer than that — a language without prescriptivism? Mebbes aye, mebbes naw. :-)

  15. Mark F. said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    German and Spanish have different regional accents and yet have spelling systems that are vastly more transparent than that of English.

    And I don't buy the etymological argument either. I just don't think it's that useful to have the historical relationship between debt and debit encoded in the spelling.

    It doesn't even require a totalitarian government to impose some kind of spelling reform. Don't the Germans tweak their spelling from time to time? They've even managed to get English words changed; the media seems to be moving towards "neandertals" rather than "neanderthals", although I see the Firefox spell checker still does it right.

    Nonetheless, Mark is right — it's not going to happen. At least not until after America goes fully metric and we reform the Western calendar.

  16. kip said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    > …the cultural barriers to reform are so large that I don't think it's realistic to expect any significant reform to happen; we just have to make the best of it.

    Didn't Noah Webster successfully do a lot of reforming to American English spelling? (IIRC he was responsible for changes like colour->color.) It wasn't an overhaul of the entire system, but I'm sure it has benefitted a few students of the language.

  17. Philip said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    Mark Liberman: Would you please, please post on how we should teach children to read? I understand that "look-say and 'whole language' methods are a disaster of epic social proportions, resulting in functional illiteracy for 25-30%" of students. However, the other extreme–phonics–has built-in problems, too: Because phonics presupposes that reading involves decoding graphemes on the printed page into sounds, doesn't it follow that children who are born deaf would never learn to read? Fxxthxrmxxx, skxllxd rxxdxxs wxll hxvx nx dxffxcxltx rxxdxxg thxs sxntxncx, and they're certainly not "sounding it out" to make sense of it.

    Is there some kind of Golden Mean between the extremes of whole language methods and phonics?

    [(myl) There's some relevant discussion and links here.]

  18. Uly said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    Karen, I said – pretty clearly, I thought – that I only advocated for the removal of silent letters (I should've been more clear and said silent consonants, vowels being totally insane) that are *without function*. The w in now has a function. The silent e has a function. The k in know does NOT have a function other than to say that many generations ago we had a k in that word, something which is interesting to etymologists and altogether useless to everybody else.

    Why do people always bring up "silent e" when I suggest taking out useless letters? Clearly, silent e does have a use. As we learn in kindergarten, it makes the vowel say its name.

  19. Philip said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Uly–So the latest Batman movie would be titled "The Dark Night"?

  20. Philip said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    Correction: The latest Batman movie would be "The Dark Nite."

  21. marie-lucie said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

    About the huge number of variants in earlier versions of English:

    – It seems to me that good spellers are people with a good visual memory and also with a love of consistency. In past ages, when few people were trained to read and write from a young age as our children now are in schools, and there were not many reading materials, I think that a lot of people again and again approached words as if they encountered them for the first time, kept writing tentative versions of the same word, and did not try to remember them from one instance to the next, even in the same text. This is probably why even for their own names (let alone the names of others) they felt no need to be consistent. I have encountered this even in my own practice as a field linguist: even though I have always been a very good speller in French and English, I have sometimes been somewhat inconsistent in my attempts at practical transcription of a field language when a consultant's range of variation seemed compatible with more than one practical spelling. Some speakers who had learned an adequate practical spelling but were not frequent writers also seemed to face every encounter with the same word as is it was new and required a new attempt at spelling.
    – The many versions of "Shakespeare": the ones ending in -sper not -speare suggest that the vowel was completely unstressed, and reduced to schwa, in at least some pronunciations of the name. Could it be that the current pronunciation is a hypercorrective rather than an inherited one?

  22. Walter Underwood said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

    I really enjoyed Feersum Endjinn, partly because of the verfrumdungseffekt of the phonetic spelling. The far future really should be alien and what better way to show that distance than language? Plus, the engine/djinn pun is pretty fine.

    I work on search at Netflix, and people do search for "the dark night". They don't search for "the dark nite", which makes some dark prescriptivist corner of my soul happy.

    Now let's talk about the upcoming movie "Inglourious Basterds". That's a double nightmare for spellcheckers and search engines.

  23. Mary Kuhner said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    It seems plausible to me that streamlined spellings such as nite and thru will eventually become accepted, just as streamlined spellings of other words have in the past. Whether this will lead to a net simplification–hard to say! But English spelling is certainly not inalterable. You can't reform it by force very well, but it does change, and often (it seems to me) in the direction of simplicity. The loss of double-l from a lot of words seems like a simplification. Also the rule for possessives of names ending in "s" seems to be moving toward simplicity.

    I suspect that The Dark Nite will only look bad for, at most, one generation and then it will look perfectly okay. As for the loss of resolution of the homophones–it seems to me that that title gains part of its vigor from the double meaning, and spelling it the way I do above enhances rather than detracts.

    I do wish I could see a way to get rid of the -ent/-ant distinction in one fell swoop, though. I wrote a 120 page thesis on insulin-independent diabetes and it took me the first 60 pages to figure out how to spell it. I pronounce both options exactly the same, so it's quite frustrating. I fall in the (probably enormous) class of writers who do not have enough Latin for the distinction to have any meaning; it's purely arbitrary (and my innate default is wrong).

  24. Brett said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 4:23 pm

    @Mary Kuhner
    Keiko Koda has done experiments in Japanese where she wrote words that were typically hiragana in katakana and visa versa. (These are two complementary writing systems somewhat analogous to upper and lower case Roman or Roman vs. italic.) Even with this minor change, the result was that expert readers of Japanese slowed down.

  25. comwave said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 4:41 pm

    It seems to me that a more sophiscated and elaborate spell checker would be less costly and less confusing than spelling reform. As mentioned above, language will go through its own change, whether it's called simplification or evolution or retreat, according to the principle of the survival of the fittest.

    And for Google, "Inglourious Basterds" is not a big deal, but for a spell checker, it really is until you put the phrase into the DB of the spellchecker.

    As long as a spell checker follows the update speed of paper dictionaries, it will face increasing complaints from users, who have fast increasing expectations for application softwares. Given the development of spell checkers in word processor softwares, spell checkers will have some sort of "intelligence" someday. I wish application developers marked that day on their roadmap.

  26. acilius said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

    @Mary Kuhner: "I do wish I could see a way to get rid of the -ent/-ant distinction… I fall in the (probably enormous) class of writers who do not have enough Latin for the distinction to have any meaning." How much Latin is that? I ask because I hold an advanced degree in Classics and have been teaching Latin at the university level for 15 years, but I still have to check the dictionary for spellings of several -ent/ -ant words. So sign me up for your reform.

  27. Emma Smith said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    I think the internet gives us a unique opportunity to change English spellings – but I don't think it will be a conscious or directed process. For many of us a considerable percentage of everything we read is done so online, and a fair amount of that has been written (like this comment, all the comments above it, and the post itself) with the writer and editor as the same person. This gives all of us the freedom to write how we please.

    That's not to say we'll all suddenly break out in funkily arcane spellings, but rather that the variance in English spelling will increase. Common 'mistakes' often go uncorrected, and the 'market' (the readers) judge those new variants as useful/useless/easy/hard, eventually seeing them as acceptable or even preferable. I know it's a long jump from the internet to print, but because the process takes many individuals making many choices, by the time a new spelling gets to the stage where it can be seen in print, you know it's been well-tested. A true mistake – one which lowered the ability to communicate instead of enhancing it – would swiftly be done with, but those which benefit the reader and the writer will stick around as long as they're needed.

  28. Mark F. said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    Mary Kuhner — The thru spelling actually received a big push in, I think, the first half of the last century, but it didn't take. And the variant spelling 'rime' for 'rhyme' doesn't seem to be gaining ground. I think people are pretty conservative about their spelling.

    Uly and Philip – I think a spelling reform would indeed get rid of silent e. You would want a consistent way of denoting what I still tend to call long vowels, whether or not they appeared in the last syllable of a word. Since they're really diphthongs, they would probably be pairs of letters. Night would be nayt, perhaps.

  29. Jorge said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    A few yraes ago I raed auobt smoe "rseercah" dnoe in smoe Eglnsih urisnitvey or atnoehr swohing taht all you rlaely need is to keep the frist and lsat ltetres of ecah wrod in palce for a txet to be fraily esay to read. Unfronatutley, I dno't konw how to saecrh for it wtih Goglge…

  30. Jorge said,

    April 11, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    It wasn't so hard to find after all, at least one version of it:

    Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. amzanig huh?

    [(myl) For the true story — at least as of 2003 — see here.]

  31. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 12:53 am

    -ant vs. -ent endings, which no English speaker has ever pronounced differently, as far as I know. (Certainly no one does so today.)

    Some lawyers in the Bay Area say "defendANT," last syllable rhyming with "pant;" I think a majority make the last vowel a schwa. The distinction has been explained to me by a lawyer as a marker of where the speaker went to law school, the rarer pronunciation being associated (as I recall) with Boalt, at UC Berkeley.

  32. [links] Link salad for a Xi’an Monday morning | said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    […] In defense of spell checking — Language Log is interesting as usual. […]

  33. Aaron Davies said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    didn't the chicago tribune spend most of the twentieth century pushing spelling reform by using "thru", "nite", etc. on a regular basis?

  34. 4ndyman said,

    April 12, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    Thank you Karen and Philip! Losing the etymological indicators on spelling would effectively limit the growth rate of a child's vocabulary. One could no longer figure out the meaning of the word from these etymological clues, ot would be all dictionary lookups and context, and whatever words the techer tries to teach. One could easily learn the word compile (kumpial), for example, and not be able to deduce what a compilation (kompillayshun) is. And how are fashin and fashizm related? And the commonalities between primadonna, primary, and primative would be lost.

    Consider also what effect this might have on the greatest part of English: its flexibility.

  35. Alex said,

    April 13, 2009 @ 3:17 am

    You could try to sell spelling reform with ecological arguments. All the silent letters simply take up space and ink for no good purpose. I've been working on an alternate spelling for French, essentially based on the convention for Turkish. For an average text, the gain in space is about 20%.

    I don't know how this translates into CO2 emissions, but it must mean something. So, perhaps if we could convince people that spelling reform is a way to halt global warming, we might get somewhere.

  36. Lugubert said,

    April 14, 2009 @ 6:36 am

    I understand the reasoning of you-all, young able-bodied linguists. But my job would be unbearably tiring without spellcheckers. Barely hinted at in the OP, here’s my problem and solution:

    I’m a tech translator, and have suffered from two strokes. They both hit the right (pun intended) brain, so my language centres seem to be sufficiently intact, but my left hand often has a mind of its own. An MS Word macro that in two key punches allows me to return to and correct the last spelling error makes my day. (The mots common errosr have, of course, their own automatic corrections.)

  37. Just Kristin» Blog Archive » I’ll show you mine if you show me yours… (4/20/2009) said,

    April 20, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    […] In defense of spell-checking […]

  38. Nancy said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    An interesting article in the winter 2008-09 edition of American Educator, "How Words Cast Their Spell", makes a case for the revamping of spelling instruction in the U.S. instead of reforming the spelling. They cite studies that demonstrate a close relationship between reading and spelling ranging from 0.66 to 0.9; this means that as children learn to spell, their knowledge of words improves and reading becomes easier.

    The problem is that spelling is usually taught in isolation, a visual task improved by rote memorization. If this were true, misspellings of regular words (e.g., stamp, sing, strike) and irregular words (e.g., sword, said, enough) would occur at equal frequency. Misspellings occur more often with irregular words.

    Good spellers, they contend, develop insights into how words are spelled based on sound-letter correspondences, meaningful parts of words (e.g., bio- and -logy), word origins and history. Explicit instruction in language structure, especially sound structure, is essential to learning to spell.

    Conventional spelling instruction of flashcards and writing words 5 or 10 times each is simply not effective, yet is commonplace.

    The article points out that 50% of English words are predictable based on sound-letter correspondence (e.g., /k/ in back, cook, and tract). Another 34% are predictable except for one sound (e.g., knit, boat and two). When word origin and meaning are thrown in to the mix, "only 4% of English words are truly irregular and may have to be learned visually" – the flashcard/repetition method.

  39. Nancy said,

    April 21, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    AND… haven't quite a few "simplifications" made their way into dictionaries such as

    donuts, catalog, lite (meaning low-calorie), dialog?

    Would you understand if I wrote

    They rode along the rode and, when they reached the lake, they rode across it?

  40. Sue J said,

    April 30, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

    Yes, the whole thing about the "research" at Cambridge is completely bogus; not only was there no research, but the conclusions blithely blathered in that "paragraph" are bogus (and it doesn't follow the implied randomness, either).
    Some of our spelling could be simplified, but going all phonetic would be a nastification. We've been horribly negligent in our excuses for teaching our young to use our language. Let's work on that, rather than dumbing down the language.

  41. Liban Aahmad said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    You wrote: " Some of these may be mere typos, but others arise (I think) because some Somali dialects have lost or are losing the distinction between long and short vowels." The major causes of spelling errors in Somali have got to do with failure to write what one says–and this arises when one spells words that contain a doubled consonant without paying attention to the letters. In the case of bare ( teacher) it is understandable why bareyaal ( teachers) is " somewhat commoner than barayaal." Variations in Somali spellings are more a function of unfamiliarity with Somali spelling rules than accent differences. Somalia has two major dailects: Maay and Brava. Zorc and Osman's Somali-English Dictionary is in standard Somali.

  42. Peter McAndrew said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

    We can't get rid of the spelling distinction of k/night – that would ruin Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "…you and all your silly English K-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-niggits!"

  43. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 7:11 am

    I remember having an animus toward phonics instruction when I was in the early grades for the simple reason that I could already read when I entered kindergarten, and it all seemed useless and plodding to me. My wife felt the same way.

    It took me years to develop enough empathy to realize that this was an unfair criticism of phonics from the perspective of a typical pupil. (And that for all I thought I could read, there were probably still a lot of words that I couldn't recognize, but could learn to read by sounding them out.)

    This seems to be common enough to get literary attention–Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird has exactly the same experience. It's really just part of the general educational question of how you accommodate students with different levels of preparation and skill.

  44. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 7:19 am

    …I also get the impression that the battle over reading instruction at one point became highly ideological: for a while, in the US, whole-language approaches were the liberal way to teach reading and phonics-only was the conservative way, the pro-phonics research was taken by conservatives as evidence of the intellectual bankruptcy of liberalism, and consequently how you felt about the issue depended in part on which political team you were on.

  45. Aradheya said,

    May 13, 2014 @ 12:40 am

    A spell checker can be useful in catching typographical errors, slip of hand and brain . He know very well decent writing system . Which people have not knowledge about merely by virtue of able to speak language being written . A good spell checker can guide you perfectly for decent writing system .I think this language system is very helpful to use in any conference part .

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