Monday, 27 September 2010

Spelling is importent

If I mention spelling to aspiring writers, they're likely to look at me as if I'm telling them to go back to grammar school.  Odds are, I probably am, but that doesn't change the fact the spelling is one of those skills that a writer must master to avoid being dismissed after the first sentence.  There are a lot of rules that you can break as a writer,  You can be ungrammatical, dispense with linear narrative, make up your own personal quotation marks, fire commas at a page as if from a shotgun, and write like J K Rowling and get away with it, but if you can't spell, you might as well switch to playing the bassoon.

But surely in this digital age needing to spell is a bit like needing to know how to skin a bear with a pen knife.  True, things like spell check and grammar check can make writing and editing easier.  You can just whiz along; pounding out words on the screen without having to keep glancing at a cheat sheet loaded with cautions about I before E or the proper use of the pluperfect subjunctive.  If you're a good citizen of Oceania and don't want to inadvertently commit thoughtcrime, you can even set your word processing software to flag any un-PC words, so all your output will be in doubleplus good Newspeak.  However, these editing tools are just that; tools.  There purpose is to help make the job of proofing your text easier. They're no substitute for a keen eye and solid judgment.

One problem to look out for is homonyms.  Spell check can catch a word that isn't in its dictionary, but it has a problem with words that sound the same but are spelled differently.  Threw and through, to and too, bough and bow; each of these get by the machine, but they shouldn't get past the eye.  It's an error that is particularly telling because its so common, which I should have spelled as "it's so common".  A slip of the keyboard and "quiet" becomes "quite"; so easy to do, yet impossible for the machine to catch.

Then there's malapropisms, which are words that sound enough like the correct one that it slips by both the writer and the computer, such as,
We heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks
Finally, there are differences in spellings between dialects.  Americans, it's well known, have a notorious problem with spelling, what with "color" for "colour"  and "recognize" for "recognise" and, unfortunately, many spell check software packages are written by Americans, so a writer in Britain and other parts of the civilised world must spellcheck the spell check.

I thought it was bad enough that their cars were built the wrong way 'round.

One final point, don't think that just because you're writing a very short piece that you don't need to worry about spelling. Even the shortest bit of text needs proofing, as the example below proves:

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