Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

On the internet, nobody knows you can’t spell

By Dennis Baron


The English Spelling Society has released a report blaming the internet for what it sees as the current epidemic of bad spelling: “The increasing use of variant spellings . . . has been brought about by people typing at speed in chatrooms and on social networking sites where the general attitude is that there isn’t a need to correct typos or conform to spelling rules.”

Many people have come to the same conclusion, despite the fact that, by popular demand, almost all of our digital devices come equipped with unforgiving spell-checkers that mark every mistake with bright red lynes lines.

This is hardly the first time that the ‘net has been unjustly blamed for bad English. Studies emerge with depressing regularity charging that texting, chatting, and email lead us to abandon the civilizing rules of standard English—whatever that may be—and replace them with monosyllables, abbreviations, and emoticons that are barely a step away from brutish barks and growls.

It turns out, though, that digital technology is only the most recent culprit in the supposed decline of a language that apparently reached perfection at some unspecified point earlier in its history and has been going downhill ever since. Over the past half-century critics have blamed the decay of English on movies, television, comic books, rock ’n roll, permissive parenting, educational reform, Webster’s Third, and the war in Vietnam.

The English Spelling Society holds technology only partially responsible for our current literacy crisis. According to them, an even more basic problem turns out to be the very basis of that literacy, the alphabet:

The irregularity of English spelling starts with children being taught the alphabet and finding that it is a poor guide on how to reliably pronounce the written form or reproducing spoken words in writing.

The solution is spelling reform, though apparently not the kind of spell-as-you-please reform encouraged by the internet which renders “to be or not to be” as 2b or ∼2b. Instead the Spelling Society favors a more rational spelling on the analogy of the metric system and decimal currency:

To improve literacy in the general population, modernisation of the spelling system will bring similar benefits to what decimalisation brought.

But while such modernization might consist of simplified spellings like thru for through or modernization for modernisation, why not go really decimal and create an alphabet of 100 letters and have every word be ten letters long? Or we could write in binary code, with every word spelled as a string of zeroes and ones, so that “to be or not to be” might be transcribed as

01110100 01101111 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01101111 01110010 00100000 01101110 01101111 01110100 00100000 01110100 01101111 00100000 01100010 01100101

Better yet, we could switch to a writing system where every word is written with scannable vertical lines and spaces, like a bar code:

to be or not to be written out as a bar code

“To be or not to be,” written as a barcode – very rational, though it might be a little hard to read.

But before we ditch our modern passion for one-spelling-per-word, even if it does allow for variants like theater and theatre, or color and colour, we might consider that our much-maligned text, chat, and email may not be so harmful after all. True, the English Spelling Society reports that the majority of 18-24 year olds surveyed believe that the pressure to write fast on the internet has turned variant spellings into the norm, but a third of them maintain that standard spellings are preferable. This confirms my own nonscientific finding that most people in the 18-24 demographic think that text-speak like cu l8r for ‘see you later’ or OMG for ‘oh, my god,’ is just a developmental phase, something one grows out of after middle school, when conventional writing takes over.

As they mature, most internet writers seek correctness, and to satisfy their continuing demand for standard English, programs for texting, chatting, and email typically come with spell-checkers which mark suspected errors and often suggest corrections. It turns out that, thanks to digital technology, no matter how bad you are with pencil and paper, on the internet, nobody need know you can’t spel spell.

Above,  a Facebook “note” with misspelled words automatically underlined. FB’s spell-checker is even programed to mark Facebook as incorrect. Below, Mail also underlines misspellings. Mail finds Facebook is correct, but it marks lower-case facebook as wrong.

So far as the question of to spell or not to spell goes, it’s not the internet, but the technology of pencil-and-paper writing, that truly lends itself to creative spelling. Speaking of “to be or not to be,” Shakespeare, one of the greatest English writers, signed his own name six different ways in the six surviving documents that bear his signature: Shackper, Shakspear, Shakspea, Shackspere, Shakspere, and Shakspear, none of them matching the standard spelling, Shakespeare (he penned variants on William as well), and contemporaries spelled his name about 30 more ways, including Shackspyer, Shackspeare, Shagspere, and Shakysper, all of this centuries before the invention of the keyboard.

Had the English Spelling Society been around in 1594 (it was founded in 1908, at a time when some scholars wrote the name of Hamlet’s author as Shakespere), it would have blamed these Shakespearean variants on the undependability of the leading writing technology of the day, the quill pen, which did not come with a spell checker, or possibly the recently-invented pencil, which exploded onto the European scene in the 1560s.

still from movie

Writers like Shakespeare used the age-old technology of the quill pen (above) and the recently-invented hi-tech pencil (below, the first known picture of a pencil and a piece of graphite appears in a book printed in 1565). Both of these technologies could be blamed for the horrendous spelling of the day.

first known image of a pencil, from 1565

Maybe instead of blaming technology or the alphabet or writers themselves for the fact that English spelling is inconsistent, unphonetic, and difficult, we should just come to terms with the fact that, no matter how strong we feel the need to control it, language, like all human activities, is hard to rein in. We have no mechanism to guaranty spelling—or is it guarantee? Our words, either spoken or written, are variable, not fixed, and we remain free to follow or ignore the spelling recommendations of giants like Microsoft or small bands of orthographical malcontents like the members of the English Spelling Society.

Infinite number of monkeys chained to computers typing out Hamlet Basic

Hamlet in the internet age: If you sit an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of computers, they will eventually type out, not Hamlet, but HamBasic.

facebook spell corrector

Above,  a Facebook “note” with misspelled words automatically underlined. FB’s spell-checker is even programed to mark Facebook as incorrect. Below, Mail also underlines misspellings. Mail finds Facebook is correct, but it marks lower-case facebook as wrong.

mail program with spell check

Read More in…

Recent Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by blogs of the world, Arnold Goodway. Arnold Goodway said: OUPblog » Blog Archive » On the internet, nobody knows you can’t spell http://t.co/KgMuc4D via @OUPblogUSA [...]

  2. Allan

    “I think texting is kind of destroying our English language because I text a lot and I know this.”
    The language evolves. Its evolving now. Its still English.
    Changing words and grammar is changing the language. Changing the spelling is changing only the way they ar ritten. Neither is fatal.
    The former may be regrettable. The latter is desperately needed!

  3. Nicholas

    “Above, a Facebook “note” with misspelled words automatically underlined. FB’s spell-checker is even programed to mark Facebook as incorrect. Below, Mail also underlines misspellings. Mail finds Facebook is correct, but it marks lower-case facebook as wrong.”

    Leavng aside th fact that Dennis has misspeld “programmed” (deliberatly?), his snide refrences to spel-chekrs markng things as incorect is disinjenuus to say th least. Al that a spel-chekr can do is tel u that it dosnt recognize th word it’s undrlined. Howevr, al spel-chekrs can be taut to accept any spelng u like, including this ‘Cut Spelling’.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *