Today's blog will be a column I wrote for The Observatory that was never published. The editor never explained why, just asked me to submit an alternate piece before deadline. My guess is it was a touch too abrasive to be read by the good citizens of my county. Maybe the editor thought it struck a little too close to home. In any case, here it is now - a year later, but no less relevant. Or fraught with frustration.
You've heard people say, "This country is going to hell in a hand basket!" Of course you have. And they're right. But don't blame our fall on Obamacare or illegal immigration or soaring oil prices. Blame it on widespread apathy toward humanity's greatest invention.
What is this invention, you ask? The written word, of course. The very foundation of civilization.
Imagine a world without writing, where complex instructions and documentation could only be transmitted orally. Where would we be? My guess is not far beyond the Stone Age, tapping out arrowheads with chunks of quartz and years from grasping the fundamentals of agriculture. In other words, not at all civilized (which is not to suggest being uncivilized is worse, but that is an argument for another day).
I'm merely noting that since we are indeed civilized, we should grant total respect to the textual medium that helped us get where we are.
In America's earliest days, before spelling had been standardized, people paid little mind to how they wrote words (those who were literate, at any rate). "Spelling" or "speling" would have been equally acceptable. Fortunately, we pulled ourselves together and homogenized our language into something coherent, concise and decipherable. And thanks to Merriam-Webster, we have concrete knowledge of how words are supposed to appear.
Today, though? Today, spelling seems to be the last thing people can be bothered with. Scanning my friends' Facebook updates, I see "to," "too" and "two" used interchangeably. "Your" and "you're?" Don't get me started. "Breath" and "breathe" -- one is a noun and the other a verb. How did these simple differentiations slip out of common knowledge? Maybe I just need smarter friends.
Am I being too hard on folks? Let me put it this way. If you want to use our language, shouldn't you want to use it correctly? It's the same reason I use a calculator when figuring sums; I want to do it right. Writing is something most of us do daily, whether emailing the boss, making out bills, or a writing a letter to the editor. Shouldn't we want flawless spelling, no matter the task?
And believe me -- I'm not tooting my own horn. There are loads of words that give me trouble. But if I'm unsure, I look it up. It only takes a few seconds and makes all the difference.
Ah, here it comes: the Spell Check Argument. Word processing programs have completely superseded the typewriter, including the ability to scan documents for spelling errors. Unfortunately, Spell Check works like a fishing net with a hole in the webbing: it will catch most of what you want it to, but a few whoppers are still going to slip through.
A professor once told me (after discovering a spelling error on a paper that both Spell Check and laborious proofreading failed to catch), "Mr. Gudmunson, if you can't spell correctly, you shouldn't be writing at all." At first I was indignant, but after some consideration I concurred. I don't worry about messing up advanced algorithms because I don't do advanced algorithms. But I do write every day and thus feel it is my duty to ensure I write, well, right.
Another professor told me, "Learn to write effectively and you can have anything you want in life." That starts with proper spelling. And while I can't say I have everything I want, I can say I'm on my way.