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The demise of good english and spelling things correctly

September 27, 2004

I am looking for kindred souls, people who are as alarmed as I am at what passes for the written word. Bad enough are the deliberate short cuts that people take (How R U today?), but must we write with such lack of regard that people must read it twice to get the meaning? Don't people proofread what they write to make sure they didn't leave out important words like "is", "the", and such?

And spelling! How can you post a message on the Azalea forum and spell it as "azalia" in the message title? How long does it take to look up how to spell something properly? Internet dictionaries abound! Is it a lack of pride or pure ignorance? It wasn't Hurricane Francis, it was "Frances". On the Name that Plant forum, someone posted that they wanted something from "Cali" identified. Once you read the post, you realized that they meant "California". When did Cali become the abbreviation for such a beautiful word?

Thanks for letting me rant. My family is not sympathetic.

P.S. I hope I didn't make any typos ....

Comments (115)

  • ironbelly1

    Well, that certainly was an impassioned soliloquy. But, have you heard about the panda who eats,size=+2> shoots and leaves?


  • John_D

    A great little book!

  • esh_ga

    Those who have been taught to do it right should do it right. Those who have not been taught correctly (or don't have the resource to learn it correctly) have a valid excuse for not being competent.

    My point centers around those who have been taught to speak and write the English language correctly ... yet choose not to do so. And those who choose not to spell words correctly when dictionaries and spell check devices abound ... they need to be ashamed of their laziness (and inserting a comment after the word acknowledging that you don't know how to spell it is not a valid excuse). As I keep telling my 13 year old son, "A good speller is someone who knows when to look it up."

  • inkognito

    Did you read the article wild, or are you commenting on the phrase that esh highlights only?
    Your posting demonstrates how difficult it is to read what appears to be the transcript of a speech. Rather than follow the conventions of written English you have chosen to follow some and not others causing confusion in anyone with the patience to read it. The clarity that comes with "correct usage" of the written word has nothing at all to do with regional dialects or different accents. Henry Mitchell writes with the rhythm typical of his birthplace but what he writes is readily comprehensible, the same could be said of Salmon Rushdie or Ital Calvino, Gabrielle Garcia Marquez or Martin Amis.

  • poppa

    The rules of grammar and spelling were never intended for the common folk.

    We who have been born into the coalmines of illiteracy have no need for words of fine white linen. We take a breath when nature dictates we must and not at the direction of a prissy aristocrat who declares commas are for such and such whilst colons are to be used in other situations.

    We read with our calloused brains, made strong by the hard labor of working to understanding intent. Our writing does not cater to the elite and their wobbly gelatin-like pampered minds who, aghast at incorrectly placed punctuation, run whining to their lords and ladies. "Foul!" they cry. "Flog them Sire!"

    And the common folk keep the stories alive, build new foundations, and give the elite a purpose.


  • John_D

    If we consider the question of good writing from a gardening perspective, we can readily identify several varieties of writing which sprawl all over the place and are very vigorous and sometimes even pretty like weeds thriving at the edge of a well-tempered garden (which try to push into cultivated spaces and overgrow and smother their prettier albeit less vigorous civilized cousins). Their prettiness can be appealing at times, in a rugged fashion like tall roadside thistles bedecked with goldfinches but they will rarely be sufficiently good-looking to be admitted to the refined company of garden annuals, and they can never hope to achieve the bright disposition of perennials, the suppleness of shrubs, or the lofty height of trees. They are short lived and have no staying power, arriving with the warm rains of spring and shriveling in the first frost. No gardener would consider saving their seeds to assure their propagation.

  • wild_garden

    as i said in my first post on this thread my own spelling and grammar is terrible, i think we've established that. :) but i did actually have a point, and that point was not that grammar and spelling doesn't matter ... i said above that i think a refined clear delivery is important. the point was that i think the more important thing is to have an actual message, you can refine it later. sure, pretty words and phrases are nice, the responses above illustrate that well. but that doesn't make a good writer. good strong content, a message, that's what makes a good writer. if you have a good message you can press a few buttons and let an editor make it pretty, just like you can touch a few buttons and have it transcribed by hand on vellum highlighted with gold leaf instead of using an ink jet. that kind of thing is trivial. i don't think the great challenge of writing is typos and poor spelling, i think there are other much more significant challenges ... challenges such as the search engine writer. poke in a few search engine queries, get a pile of junk back, condense it, make it pretty, spew the same low value garbage back at magazine readers. to me these are sins worth talking about. poppies don't transplant well, mixing sand with clay soil makes concrete, hybrid tea roses don't grow well on their own roots, you can make a useful amount of compost with a compost tumbler ... the list of lies and mistruths written by "garden writers" is nearly endless. my point was that writing is a lot more than a cute phrase or vivid analogy, it's about more than dressing things up with extravagant words from the thesaurus ... it's about actually saying something that has some kind of value. and as i said i agree spelling and grammar should be refined, especially if it's for a wide audience, the more important it is the more you should refine it. but i don't think that's such a big deal and it doesn't bother me to write or read poor grammar and spelling unless it's truly impossible to make any sense of it, very few things are that poorly written.

    and the bit about the rules and regulations of writing in english, what i said about foreign writers, etc ... the point was the same ... not to get lost in the language at the expense of the message, that's all i said. does an american cease to be a good writer if they use a translator to communicate their message in german to a european audience ? you no longer have any control over the more subtle points, a cute phrase doesn't translate well, you don't know any exciting colorful words if you don't know the language, and the grammar is completely foreign. how many writers can claim what they are writing is still worth saying in another language ? is spelling and grammar really that big a deal ? that was the only point i was trying to make. not that rednecks should rule the world, that wild barbarians should take over the publishing houses or that we should just start spelling things however we want to (i'll do that, you shouldn't try that at home lol). but it is true i'd rather read poorly worded stuff that had a point than i would a pretty thing that says the same junk all over again. as i said in the very first message on this thread ... i don't care if you use picture drawings so long as you have something to say.

  • poppa

    This may meet all the requirements for good English (or did it?), but it still is goofy...

    From CNN this a.m.

    A key hub for relief flights, the runway was closed after a cargo plane hit a water buffalo shortly after it landed, CNN's Mike Chinoy reported.


  • inkognito

    I am not quite sure what to make of this. Using correct spelling, punctuation and grammar does not mean that the content will be sacrificed in any way. On the contrary, what it means is that you will write a simple sentence without confusing a reader with the ambiguity contained in poppa's example.

  • ironbelly1

    It is always quite telling when someone creates an emotional "logic" based upon the hinge pin of an incorrect assumption. Good punctuation and grammar are not used to comply with a set of rules. A writer incorporates these as a courtesy to the reader and to make the ideas easier to read and understand.

    I am well known among my friends for saying, "Don't tell me. Show me." Wild Garden has certainly shown us two fine examples. I waded through the first soliloquy. The second offering, however, I gave up about one-third of the way through. It was too difficult to bother reading any more. :-(


  • wild_garden

    i give up lol. :)

    ink i did read the article in the link you posted, i forgot to mention that, was a great read thanks for posting it.

  • inkognito

    Don't give up now wg.
    One of the best books I read in the '90's (1990's for the cynical) was 'How late it was, how late' a novel that seems to be one long sentence. The writer, James Kellman puts down every discursive thought that his character has and there is a point to it, once you know what that is you get lost in the words.
    Mostly though, when trying to make a point or communicate effectively, this is not a Good Thing.
    It is difficult to read a piece written as you have done which is a shame if you have something valid to say, which seems to be your point. If you were to write down The Meaning of Life in such a way and we all gave up "one-third of the way through" what would you have acheived?

  • esh_ga

    Is it just me who feels that capitalization, punctuation and proper use of paragraph breaks are elements that are beneficial to the reader?

    Much as I understand what you are trying to say wild_garden, it was extremely hard to read. I gave up after a while as well. And while you are right that an editor can "poof!" it all to be correct, you were not using an editor to "poof" this.

    As the original poster on this thread, my whole point was not about people that write professionally. Goodness, I hope they know well enough to get their grammar right (as well as using spell checkers and grammar checkers). I am talking about your average Joe (and Jill).

    I certainly hope that people don't think that education is just for the elite anymore. I believe that education is a requirement for children in the US now. So everyone appears to have the opportunity to learn basic reading and writing skills. I could be wrong, I guess.

    Please don't think we don't respect your opinion, wild_garden, everyone is entitled to one. I still think that basic skills are important, should be learned and should be USED.

  • eddie_ga_7a

    Me too.

  • inkognito

    Perhaps this thread has come to the end of its bobin but...on PBS last night there was a programme called "Do you speak American". In one segment it showed a classroom situation where kids from multiple ethnic backgrounds were being taught correct English like it was a second language. They would start with a phrase written on the blackboard, it would be phrase written as it was spoken at home or among their peers. The kids would then translate it into an acceptable written form. The purpose was not to change the way they spoke but to teach them that to communicate outside their group to pass exams or apply for a job, say, then correct English was the preferred method.

  • John_D

    I read several emails and posts this week (one from an editor who should know better) where the misspellings made it hard for me to understand what the writer was trying to say. It reminded me once again that a precise use of language (which includes correct spelling and syntax) is necessary for proper communication.

    (When someone asked me to "bare with her" I wondered if she wanted to go nekkid. I did not ask her to clarify.)

  • eddie_ga_7a

    John, That was doubly funny because it reminded me of when I was in the Army and one of my sister's friends wrote and said she couldn't wait till I came home so she could meat me.

  • John_D

    Did she? LOL

  • eddie_ga_7a

    I was the first boy she had ever kissed but that was as far as it went.

  • hardworkingjulie

    Eye thynk u r beeing uptite. (There's a joke in there somewhere...)

    I would hate to limit my exposure to opinions and ideas to only those presented with equal or superior linguistic skill. I am sure you mean no ill will, but there are those who might find your statement hurtful or embarrassing. Posts on either end of the grammatical spectrum can be difficult to read, but let's take from them what we can and move forward with an understanding heart.

  • Cady

    Donuts, anyone?

  • alpiner

    I couldn't give a hoot about any demise of good english (English?) or spelling. The 'good' as defined by who? It's like the demise of the traditonal marriage. What traditional marriage? White waspish Christian heterosexuals?

    What 'good' English? That of the back streets of Kingston, Jamaica? The villages of Kenya? I assume 'good' English means either that of Brtain or the U.S.A. So why is American spelling and British acceptable? Is writing theater instead of theatre the demise of English spelling? If not, why, and why does someone writing 'colur' mean its demise?

    The Americanization of English allowed the language to evolve to meet a need and other spellings are just a part of that evolution. There is no demise of good English because there is no such thing as 'good' English. Being a slave to tradition isn't good but a recipe for stagnation. Let the rappers rap and the jivers jive.

  • pinetree30

    There are lots of good Englishes and then there is just the sloppiness of those who think free-form make-it-up-on-the-spot english is good enough because they are too lazy to bother getting anything universally legible. As an analogy think of driving -- there are different protocols for driving on race tracks, across open fields, and on inhabited streets, but within each protocol there are right and wrong ways. The wrong ways lead to disaster for someone, hopefully the perpetrator.

  • alpiner

    That's not a valid analogy. Literature and expression thrive in the United States. The perpeuators of American English spellings and vocabulary use didn't create a 'disaster' as you suggest but rather opened up a whole new world of creativity. Language is foremost about communication and expression. Variations on the English language, both oral and written, flourished for centuries before any 'good' English prevailed. Today millions of young people around the world are on the Internet and using their own 'not-good-english' to communicate and express themselves. Everyone from isolated seniors to previously semi-literate ghetto kids...who may have written a letter or two a year... are now sitting down every day without a smidgeon of thought about 'good' english and furiously tapping at their keyboards. They previously barely used the written language and today they are emerged in it up to their overflowing email boxes.

  • Herb

    People who'd read things written by Evelyn Waugh used to say that simply seeing his name at the top of an article gave them an irrestible urge to read what followed.

    Isn't that the test of 'good' English? English written so well that people enjoy reading it, no matter what the topic?

  • plantcompost

    "Today millions of young people around the world are on the Internet and using their own 'not-good-english' to communicate and express themselves."

    A couple years back PBS had a piece on literacy and with the advent of the computer Americans on every age, racial and education demographics read and write more words in a day than ever before. Literacy is flourishing and not, as the grammarians would claim, declining. Who knows the figures but probably a 10 million words are written for every word published in print.

  • pinetree30

    Yes, Alpiner, language is about communication and expression. That is why in composing your posts you adhere to the very spellings, grammar, and punctuation that you suggest are so suffocating of creativity. Shall we conclude that you are uncreative, or just that you want to be comprehended? That you'd rather be a "slave to tradition", even though that's a "recipe for stagnation" -- as you have famously written -- so your ideas can be part of this argument? You own writing throws your arguments into a cocked hat, a traditional phrase I am sure you understand. The "world of creativity" you write about did not come about by the efforts of ignoramuses, but by people who already understood the standards and purposely modified them to achieve a result. Do you think the great cubists did not know how to sketch realistic figures; that the author of "Finnegan's Wake" did not speak standard Irish-accented English; that composers of 12-tone music never mastered classical texts; or that the innovators of any field were ignorant of what they were building on? Do you think the innovative political thinkers misunderstood how monarchies worked, or that the Wright brothers never figured out how hot-air balloons rose? Of course you don't; you are too well-educated in the traditional manner to think such things.

  • Cady

    In sum: The rules may be broken only by those who have mastered them.

  • live_oak_lady

    I have not been able to visit this site in several months and am excited to see that this particular thread is still active. As a former English teacher and writer I am constantly amazed at what is written today. By the way, how R all of U?

  • alpiner


    Balderdash. Such elitist pomposity. Language evolves on the streets and in the factories and on the farms. Language evolves from the pen of what you would call 'ignoramuses' such as teen song writers and sports announcers. Your rules are broken by whoever decides to break them. The consequence is that written language and literacy is much more inclusive that it has ever been. More people today could read and understand the words to Bob Dylan's 'Homesick Blues' than contemporaries could read and understand the fluff in 'Ode to a Nightingale'

  • John_D

    Bolshevist language theory appears to be alive and well north of the border. I'm always amazed how people living in different countries have different viewpoints about language, literature, social services, et al. Fascinating stuff.

  • pinetree30

    Well, Alpiner, I'm not enough of a pompous elitist to reach back for the word "balderdash" to try making a feeble point. And I never said teen-age song writers or sports announcers (don't you mean sportscasters, the non-elitist term?) are ignoramuses. Please try to read what is written. You seem to be hung up on the politics of language, judging from your earlier comment on traditional marriages. But despite your eagerness to seem like an unbuttoned no-holds-barred counter-cultural advocate of the common man, your writing is stilted and pedantic. Maybe you like to see others break 'the rules' so that you won't have to? Or were you jilted by an English major?

  • John_D

    Perhaps she flunked a creative writing course?

  • alpiner

    Feel free to wallow in the demise of 'good' English. Meanwhile hundreds of millions of people will continue to tap away merrily on their keyboards (are you also aghast at the demise of good typing skills?) and communicate with more clarity than ever before. Eight year olds in your country will correspond with eight year olds in mine and they will understand eachother just fine. Language, written and oral, is about communication and not about preserving prissy 19th century English public school grammar. The Internet, thank heavens, is creating its own body of spelling, new words, symbols, shorthand and grammar. There is an evolution of language that corresponds to its use as a means of communication. The next generation of school teachers will be today's Internet kids and they will be more focused on the communication of ideas rather than if the word 'communication' has one 'm' or two.

  • eddie_ga_7a

    I would just like to congratulate esh_ga for starting this thread that now has 100 posts.

  • finefeller1

    One of the worst improper phrases in modern English is the use of "going to", or more commonly "gonna",instead of "will". Yet (probably improper!?), if one (note I did not use "you", improper!) searches for articles on the web about bad English grammar, one will find entries where the educating author is "Going to"(not will),rewrite a bad grammar paragraph into a good one, as an example! With people in the media, politics,etc., in high profile positions using bad grammar constantly, especially the media, where brevity is so crucial it translates into money, how are we ever going to...er I mean will we ever set the example?

    Imagine what immigrants just learning English think about phrases they never learned in English classes?

    Now I asks ya, just whatareya gonna do?

  • pinetree30

    Alpiner makes an eloquent argument, but it is eloquent only because his prose attacks stylized prose while following all the rules of stylized prose. In other words, Alpiner's hypocrisy undermines his argument. I think he is frightened to death of spelling errors or mis-punctuation. Truly a pathetic spokesman for the abandonment of "prissy 19th century English public school grammar". Is there nobody out there with the cojones Alpiner has lost?

  • Snomam

    What a pleasant thread to read for a change, not having to stumble over misspelled words! Typos are a pet peeve of mine. I see them on TV newscasts, billboards, packaging...well, everywhere these days! People just don't care and it's sad.

    A phrase that has me shaking my head recently: "somebody WENT MISSING" !!?? Where on earth did that come from?

  • poppa

    An interesting piece on NPR this morning about building robots that can truely communicate with a human. They went on to explain the difference between following a set of grammar rules and using a dictionary (see where this is going?) versus being able to apply the language in a way that reflects the shared environment or experiences.

    I quickly thought about this thread (mostly because i knew i'd spell "immeadiately" wrong...) and how, in my view, it ain't so much how you say it as it is what you have to say.

    Even robots are learning to get it.


  • lored

    Some of my personal favorites are:

    "The ozone layer is being depleated."
    "Special Olympics are for people with liabilities."
    A congresswoman said,"I represent the disinfected."


  • pinetree30

    And don't forget all those flooded cities that are "evacuated".

  • popi_gw

    Can I have a little whinge, all the way from the other side of the world....

    I feel our Australian English is being changed by the "Americanisation" of some words.

    Like theatre...theater
    and many more.

    And words like "awesome", "like" are used by our young people all the time, I suspect because of the influence of American TV.

    I hope I didn't offend anyone by my comments. I still love you...


  • macbirch

    "Like" is so, like, overused. Very annoying.

    Lately I've noticed a tendency for people to declare that they could care less. So they do care a little bit?

  • blueangel

    so many good stories on writting,
    my heart goes out to those who cannot.

  • billrymer

    RE: The demise of good english and spelling things correctly

    Excellent, then let us begin. English is a both a language and an ethnic group and therefore the noun "English" should always be capitalized. Also English cannot be considered to be "good", as "good" infers a moral judgement, rather, when discussing grammatical correctness, one should state that the English one uses is either proper or correct.

    I hope your readers are edified by my poor attempts to employ English with the measure of respect that a language of its complexity and expressiveness deserves.

    William Rymer

  • eddie3

    (And then there is the other extreme) Figure that one out.
    I would like to tell a true story that exemplifies how our society is going to Hell in a handbag: As a volunteer at the flower show at the state fair I watched as busloads of very young children were led through the flower exhibits on to the petting zoo. I told one group led by two teachers that there were bathrooms at the end of the building. One lady took all the little girls into one bathroom and the other lady said "Who all needs to go to the bathroom?" One little boy raised his hand politely and the teacher said "Yes?" The boy said "I don't need to go to the bathroom." To which the teacher replied "I didn't say who don't need to go to the bathroom, I said who do."
    And sadly, that is who is teaching our kids how to speak and who is leading by (bad) example.

  • patricianat

    The reason for typo's on your screen is voice recognition, which is going to take the place of the English student, teacher and editor, once it is trained to do their job. (I shoulda sed oncet its traned 2 do there werk).

    Am I upset about it? No, mad as hell is more like it. It is an insult to professionals and nonprofessionals, anyone who loves to do write, who loves to spell, who loves to read that which is readable.

  • concretenprimroses

    What a long lasting, interesting and popular subject. I just scanned many of the posts. I'm puzzled by goodfellas' (excuse me if I've remembered the name incorrectly) post stating that "One of the worst improper phrases in modern English is the use of "going to", or more commonly "gonna",instead of "will"." I'm learning Spanish, and an easy way to express the future is to use the verb to go (ir). I was surprised (and pleased) when taught that I could use this familar construction in Spanish as in English. EG: I am going to work in the garden tomorrow. (Voy a trabajar en el jardín mañana.) Is this also one of the worst improper phrases in modern Spanish? How interesting that we evolved improperly in the same way. Or did we? By which I mean is it not incorrect, but actually rooted in other languages as well. I wish I remembered Latin from High School better! It's rather nice to think of the future tense as "I will work ..." (Trabajaré..) as a way to distinguish between the two in my mind. It gives me the idea that I may be able to use the tiniest bit of nuance even at my poor level of Spanish speaking.

  • diggerb2

    I can not spell. i haven't been able to spell since i flunked spelling in second grade. but i know that i have a problem, so i use spell check. but spell check doesn't understand usage/context ie: their and they're are both correct to spell check even if used incorrectly. that is one reason why people spell incorrectly, even if they are using a computer-- spell check says it's okay.

    some people don't spell well because they don't know they have a problem. they don't even bother to go and check-- it looks okay to them. i know the word is wrong; i just don't know what's wrong with it.

    my latin and german professors dispair of me. my papers
    were littered with (sp)'s written by me before they were
    turned in. after 3 years of college german, a professor
    finally counted all the languages that i had spelling problems with: english, latin, french, german, spanish, italian and stopped counting as it seems my weakness also extended into more archaic languages as well.

    but my neices and nephews, brought whole new meaning to my
    inabilities when i started reading their letters and papers.
    evidently, content was more important (and this i question as well) than the technical aspects of writing such as spelling, grammar, punctuation etc.

    my wife and i share a special pet peeve over mis-used


  • oldgal67

    I think of all the ridiculous mis-spellings I've ever run across, this is the maddest......someone posting on a forum in a national newspaper was bemoaning the level of illiteracy "...threw out the world...." It took me several seconds to realize she meant 'throughout the world'.
    Changes to the English language should be made only by people who understand the language in the first place; ignoramuses and illiterates should keep their sticky fingers OFF.

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