Dumming Down of American Writers

One writer’s quest to defend those who hate to spell correctly, but love to communicate

I know what you’re thinking, or at least some of you are. Where’s the ‘b’ and why the extra ‘m’ in your headline in the word “dumbing.” Sure I saw the red squiggly line Microsoft Word automatically placed under that word that’s supposedly misspelled. I just ignored it. But honestly, is it really misspelled? Who says? Webster?

Did you know that there were 315 misspelled words in the 1996 Webster’s dictionary?

Back to my word dumming. You understood the message, right? I basically used my journalistic license and spelled the word phonetically. Remember when you were learning how to spell back in the second grade and you stumbled upon a word you had no clue how to spell? What did your mom or very old and gray teacher tell you. That’s right: “sound it out.”

I’m told the English language is one of the most difficult languages to learn. If the ‘b’ is silent in the word ‘dumbing,’ then why is it needed in the first place?! Take for example the word “there.” It has three different meanings and is spelled three different ways, depending on the sentence.

Their words were spelled their way, because they’re the ones who wrote them and there is no wrong or right way to spell them. Explain that one to your second grader without getting a WTF look on their face. And just for this article, ‘wtf’ stands for why-the-face!

Now enter (stage left) texting on cell phones. Many parents, educators and other peeps hate to see those condensed words from texting teens and texting adults. They call it a form of dumbing down too. But is it really dumbing down or speeding up?

In the text message, “i wil b ther 2morow bcuz im bizy 2day,” is the message ambiguous, vague or abstruse?

Let’s visit Gregg’s Shorthand, remember that? It’s what your mom did when she was a secretary back in the ’60s. Named after John Robert Gregg (1867-1948), he was an Irishman who invented a form of stenography in 1888. He created a style of writing similar to cursive longhand, completely based on elliptical figures and lines that bisect them. It was highly used in the business and reporting world, mostly for speed. Really? People needed to speed things up in the writing and business world back then?

Maybe texting in abridged words is more about saving cellular (billable) minutes, but it’s also about speed and communication. Does that make it bad? Does that make Gregg a dumbing-down guy for teaching us how to condense words?<

Let’s travel back in time a little further to the scribblings of Indians. Check out the birch bark scroll pieces of the Ojibwa Indians of North America who wrote complex geometrical patterns and shapes. Their writings enabled the memorization of complex ideas in order to pass along history and stories to succeeding generations. I wonder if they had spell-check back then? Did they have a dictionary to look up words or symbols they needed to communicate?

Okay, let’s get back to Mr. Webster himself. Noah Webster (1758-1843), notably known for his creation of the dictionary in 1806. He was a lexicographer, but who died and made him Sir. King Word Speller?

Did you know that the word “misspell” wasn’t introduced into our vocabulary until 1655? Before then, I’m sure they simply wrote: that ain’t spelled right!

My point is this. Texting with butchered English words is not so bad after all. Lighten up, all you who have master’s degrees in English, who won every spelling bee from grades K through 12, and who never got an essay marked up so bad, the red markings could not be deciphered between ink or blood.

Now before you judge me, know this. I’m a high school journalism teacher and a freelance writer for daily newspapers and magazines. Spelling correctly is my job. Okay, maybe the burden falls more on my copy editor’s electronic pen than mine before it goes to press, but let’s just say if I turned in copy riddled with spelling boo-boos, my editors would not be so inclined to give me more work. They’d probably call on the writer who has a big fat Webster’s dictionary sitting on his desk.

I believe spelling is important, especially when you’re trying to reach the masses. But the next time your fifth grade son shows you his essay, before you speed-dial the Sylvan Learning Center, just be proud he sounded it out and spelled it foneticly.

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2 Comments to “Dumming Down of American Writers”

  1. Tue Nam Ton says:

    Nice job Charleen! Way to stand up for the bad spellers. I know a bunch of smart people who can’t spell, including a great writer who’s dyslexic!
    Ur so Kool!

    Tue Nam

  2. Thanks for sharing, Char. I’ve always been a bad speller. I remember Mrs. Thompson, my sixth grade teacher, getting up from her desk, walking to my chair, thrusting out her hand, and saying, “Congratulations, Donnie, you got a C+ in your spelling test.

    I’ve justified myself by saying that the problem is that I’m rational and English spelling is illogical, but you know that I’m actually not that logical. I have always loved Mark Twain’s observation that any intelligent person should be able to think of at least two ways to spell any word.

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