NPR Story
2:48 pm
Wed August 7, 2013

In An Autocorrect Generation, Does Spelling Still Matter?

Originally published on Fri August 9, 2013 7:57 am

Connecticut eighth-grader Thomas Hurley has serious beef with Alex Trebek.

The “Kids Jeopardy” contestant made it all the way to the Final Jeopardy round and even got the right answer. The only problem? He spelled it wrong.

We’ve decided in current society that spelling is important — that there’s only one single correct way to spell every word.
–Simon Horobin

Hurley told his local newspaper that he was “cheated” out of the question and that “it was just a spelling error.”

Social media has exploded in defense of Hurley — and in defense of the show.

In today’s Autocorrect, text-messaging culture, does spelling still matter? Simon Horobin, a professor of English language and literature at Oxford University, says yes.

“It matters in the sense that we’ve decided in current society that spelling is important — that there’s only one single correct way to spell every word,” Horobin told Here & Now.

Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and a former spelling champion herself, says it comes down to clear communication.

“What we see as important is that when you spell well, you are creating an environment where your message to the reader is unimpeded, where you can be the most effective and influential communicator out there,” Kimble said. “You see where Alex [Trebek] was trying to read Thomas’ response and he tripped up. He tripped on what? The spelling. And so good spelling is just a component of effectiveness in your communication.”

It’s worth remembering though, Horobin said, that proper spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“If we go back to the middle ages, then there was no single spelling system — everyone spelled as they wished,” Horobin said. “And it’s really with the introduction of the printing press that we started to see the process of standardization. But even the last 100 to 200 years, there’s considerable variation in spelling.”

To some extent, the age of texting and tweeting may be reviving that spell-as-you-wish culture.

“What’s happening now on the Internet is that as more and more text is going onto the Internet and not going through the traditional printing process … text that goes directly on the Internet is often not checked, and so there’s much more varying spelling out there. And as people come to see that and read it, that spelling becomes more acceptable,” Horobin said.

Guests

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson. A Newtown, Connecticut, eighth grader has some beef with "Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek. Thomas Hurley, a participant in "Jeopardy!" Kids Week, made it all the way to the final "Jeopardy!" stage. The question was about a famous document signed by President Abraham Lincoln and then this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JEOPARDY!")

ALEX TREBEK: You're down to 3,200. Let's go to Thomas Hurley now. He had 9,600. And he wrote down what is the emancipation - because he misspelled it badly, emancitation.

THOMAS HURLEY: Tation.

TREBEK: You put a P in there, proclamation. That's unfortunate. The judges are ruling against you, so it's costing you how...

HOBSON: Ah. Emancitation instead of emancipation. Thomas later told his local paper that he was cheated out of the final question. It was just a spelling error, he said. Well, let's bring in Paige Kimble, the executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Paige, welcome.

PAIGE KIMBLE: Thank you very much. Glad to be on your show.

HOBSON: So what is your first reaction to this? Was it just a spelling error? Is it innocent?

KIMBLE: Well, first, my heart goes out to Thomas Hurley, and the reason why is I'm a former spelling bee competitor. And in my very first spelling bee, my very first word, I spelled M-A-G-N-O when asked to spell mango. And, you know, spelling, particularly in a competition setting is challenging. You know, but I also certainly understand and respect as a contest administrator "Jeopardy!'s" decision. Competitions exist because of rules, and you can't administer a contest, a competition without rules.

HOBSON: So you think the judges made the right call here?

KIMBLE: If it was in accordance with the rules, absolutely.

HOBSON: So some are saying that these days spelling is not as important as it used to be. That with texting and Facebooking and tweeting and auto-correct, that it just doesn't matter. He got the answer right, basically.

KIMBLE: Weather we see as important is that when you spell well, you are creating an environment where your message to the reader is unimpeded where you can be the most effective and influential communicator out there. And if you look at the clip between Thomas and Alex Trebek, you see where Alex was trying to read Thomas' response, and he tripped up. He tripped up on what...

HOBSON: Yeah.

KIMBLE: ...the spelling. And so good spelling is just a component of effectiveness in your communication, and that's why it's important.

HOBSON: So do you get upset when you get a text message that says C U L8R for see you later or something like that, something that's just not abiding by the common spelling of things?

KIMBLE: You know what, I am one who does this all the time. I text regularly with my eighth grade daughter, with my father who spurred me to a love of words, and we play with the language all the time through texting. Texting is like a playground for, you know, let's abandon the rules and see if we can figure what we really mean.

HOBSON: But that's not the way it should be done?

KIMBLE: Well, I think it's important for individuals to realize that you want to do everything in your power to make sure that your message and what you want is not impeded by any sort of distraction, such as poor grammar or poor spelling.

HOBSON: Paige Kimble is executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Thank you so much for talking with us.

KIMBLE: Thank you.

HOBSON: Well, that is one view. And Simon Horobin might have a different one. He's a professor of English language and literature at Oxford in the UK and the author of "Does Spelling Matter?" Simon, welcome.

SIMON HOROBIN: Thank you.

HOBSON: So does spelling matter?

HOROBIN: Well, it matters in the sense that we've decided, in current society, that spelling's important, that there's only one single correct way to spell every word. But it's worth remembering that's a relatively recent phenomenon. If we go back to the Middle Ages, then there was no single spelling system. Everybody spelled as they wished. And it's really with the introduction of the printing press that we started to see a process of standardization. But even in the last hundred, 200 years, there's considerable variation in spelling.

HOBSON: Well, give us some of that history there. What did we do before the printing press?

HOROBIN: Well, because scribes were copying books by hand, they tended to just use their own particular preferred spellings. So there were literally hundreds of different ways to spell common words like through. Once printing was introduced, books could be much more stabilized, so that numerous copies of the same book looked identical. But even then, different printers used different spelling systems.

And outside of printing, people spell very much more freely. So that, you know, famously great writers like Dickens and Austen, if you look at their manuscripts, then they're full of what we would consider to be spelling mistakes. But for them, they're just variant spellings. They're perfectly acceptable at the time.

HOBSON: So is it your view that we're better off spelling things in one uniform way or that we are better off doing whatever we'd like.

HOROBIN: Well, it has its advantages, certainly. And we couldn't go back to the Middle Ages, because English is now a global language. And if everybody spell as they wanted, there'd be chaos.

HOBSON: Yeah.

HOROBIN: We wouldn't be able to communicate. Not for all languages as form of communications. So I think from stability and uniformity is necessary. But the difficulty comes, I think, when you decide that you want to standardize the system so heavily that there's only one right way of spelling everything. Because you then end up with a system whereby people can very perfectly well understand a particular word like, say, take a word like accommodation. One of the most commonly misspelled word in the English language. And people frequently forget that there's two Cs and two Ms.

(LAUGHTER)

HOROBIN: And if you drop an M out of accommodation, everybody knows what you mean. It's just that what you've done is socially stigmatized. And that gives me a very different thing. It's not then about communication. It's about social stigma. It's about showing that you're educated. It's about showing that you care. And it's about being judged by a particular kind of criterion that may not have any linguistic justification.

HOBSON: Well, before we continue, can you please spell accommodation for us?

HOROBIN: A-C-C-O-M-M-O-D-A-T-I-O-N.

HOBSON: All right. I'll have to check with the judges afterwards. I think you're right there, though. What do you think about this idea, though, that in an age of texting and tweeting, that there is something new happening with our spelling?

HOROBIN: Well, that's clearly the case. What we see is that to some extent, I think, a continuation of the system that I described earlier that this kind of license to variation and to nonstandard spelling that we see in the 19th century in manuscripts and in informal writing and in diaries and private letters, that's the kind of thing that's still being continued today on the Internet.

And, of course, there's a particular tacit to understanding that email and, particularly, text messaging and Twitter where, you know, you have restrictions on the lengths of the message, that it's OK to abbreviate, to contract and even to misspell words in that particular environment.

And what's happening now, of course, on the Internet is that as more and more texts is being put directly onto the Internet, and not going through the traditional printing process, and, of course, today, we regulate the spelling system by employing proofreaders and copy editors who check people's spelling. Where a text that goes directly on Internet is often not checked.

HOBSON: Right.

HOROBIN: I'm going to tell you, there's much more variant spellings out there. And as people come to see that and read it, so that sort of spelling becomes more acceptable.

HOBSON: Or it's checked by autocorrect and usually gotten wrong. What do you make of this "Jeopardy" situation, where this kid spelled emancipation, emancitation, and was told that the answer wasn't correct?

HOROBIN: Well, I didn't know the rules of "Jeopardy," but, for me, that's an example of the kind of thing I was describing with accommodation, where it's personally clear what he meant. And it's where the idea that correct spelling, in itself, is inherently important, I think, becomes problematic, because it was clearly - it was the correct answer.

HOBSON: Simon Horobin is a professor of English language and literature at Oxford and the author of "Does Spelling Matter?" Mr. Horobin, thank you so much for joining us.

HOROBIN: Thanks very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOBSON: And, Robin, this story brings back some painful memories for me because back in middle school, I lost. I was kicked out of the spelling bee because of the word aforementioned.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm guessing the first E.

HOBSON: It was. It was actually, I think, that I thought I would get the better of all these people who got it wrong by spelling it like boar, A-F-O-A-R-mentioned.

(LAUGHTER)

HOBSON: But it didn't work. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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