Sunday, May 27, 2012

Alphabet Soup

Ah! If that’s all we’re talking about—brief, informal bulletins to your friends—fine. No one cares how you spell your text messages, any more than they care how you spell your grocery lists or party invitations. Deciphering a few misspelled words in a two-sentence tweet isn’t too burdensome; we’ll do it for a bud. And if we can’t, who cares?

So if you want to chat in leetspeak or use cutesy abbreviations in your texts, go crazy. You’re talking to your own tribe; they know the code, and they’re willing to indulge your affectations. And let’s be honest: A lot of that intentional misspelling, like the argot of any subculture, is meant to exclude outsiders—such as nosy parents. It’s a badge of membership in your little clique.

But having gained a yard or two for laissez-faire spelling in narrow, private circumstances, Trubek proceeds straight to the touchdown dance, proclaiming without further ado that the very idea of standardized spelling is an “outdated dogma” of the “print era.” Hold on a minute, here! If we agree it’s OK to tell an occasional white lie among friends, we’re making an exception, not voiding the rules. It doesn’t mean honesty no longer matters.

So let’s be clear: Are we saying that professional news sites should spell words in any way that strikes their mood or fancy? What exactly would be the benefit of that? Should government officials feel free to “play with language,” as she exhorts, when drafting safety regulations? How would contracts be enforced if anyone could say that what appeared to be a promise of “delivery” was actually a variant spelling of “devilry”?

A friend of mine noted the prevalence of typos and misspellings on an English professor's blog recently, though some of them were, to be fair, examples of words that pass spellcheck while being ungrammatical or incoherent in context. Probably due to haste more than anything. We shared a commiserating but hollow laugh.

See, I've always been a great speller. I catch errors in books all the time. But the sheer volume of typos and misspellings-from-ignorance you encounter among the electronic graffiti in the refuse-strewn, dingy alleyways of the web wears you down, and you start to fear that if you see one more person mix up your and you're, or use that instead of than, you yourself will forget the proper usage, the affliction will spread like a mutated virus, and we will require Arabs to preserve the knowledge and transmit it back to us several centuries hence. I can't get that upset about it anymore; I just cross myself, avert my eyes, and mutter Illuc sine gratia Dei eam while drawing my traveler's cloak more tightly about my throat and hurrying on, the ragamuffins and street urchins' cries of U MAD LOL Y U H8N? trailing after me into the Cimmerian gloom like vengeful, slightly retarded spirits.

In my own writing, I find that I tend to become habituated to the little red spelling squiggle, since I apparently employ a fair number of odd names, nonce words, neoterisms and portmanteaus, and I get tired of pausing to submit their application for dictionary citizenship. But, and I'm sure there's an official term for this, I do find that I tend to misspell certain words while typing that I never would while writing. I think of it as keyboard dyslexia, where the wrong hand insists on tapping its key before its partner, almost as if my left hand were to seize the pen from my right to insert whatever letter it felt just had to go there. Really, left hand? "Enviornment"? You think that looks better? "Mithg" for "might"? Really? Go back to scratching itches, you dolt.