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Walden Pond

Being a Chronicle of Man against Men

Walden Pond

Being a Chronicle of Man against Men

Mark Hammer on why we should take spelling mistakes very seriously

"It is never wrong to be mindful and attentive to spelling and grammar. They are the heart and soul of precise, effective, efficient, and considerate communication. If someone has taken enough care to do what is required to facilitate MY comprehension, and prevent my mis-comprehension, that’s someone I can probably place my confidence in.

At the same time, we live in an era when spelling and grammar receive short shrift in education, when so many have grown up assuming that software would take care of such things (so they didn’t have to master it), when the entire world of marketing and popular culture has taken spelling and grammar hostage for purposes of seizing our attention and selling us things, and where the technological means for communication impels us to communicate on impulse, that you have to be a bit forgiving of people.

I’m a stickler for grammar and spelling, but all too often my screen is set to so small a font that I miss many of my own errors. It eats away at me when I know I can’t go back and fix them.

When I used to teach university, it was often a fairly trivial task to identify someone with a reading disability or A.D.D. via their writing. The same word would be spelled several different ways in the same paragraph, and NOT because of speed, but because the writer was simply not tracking whether what they wrote was comprehensible or not. That IS the central deficit in most forms of discourse processing: people just stop paying attention to whether what they are reading or writing makes sense or not.

Socio-linguist Basil Bernstein proposed the distinction between what he called elaborated and restricted code in discourse. Elaborated code is what people use when communicating with others who may not share any assumptions or background knowledge. All details are fully articulated, since it is the details that facilitate clarity. Restricted code is what we use when interacting with those whom we believe share assumptions with us. It is those shared assumptions that permit conversations like “Want some?”, “Nah”, “You sure?”, “Yeah”, or “So I’m, like, what-EVER! And she’s all, like, OH NO YOU DIH-INT!” to take place and be construed as communicating effectively between conversants. Restricted code is also the principal approach to discourse adopted by adolescents and young adults. It is the very engine that permits something like Twitter, and other highly abbreviated forms of text-based communication, to be realizable, insomuch as short bursts of what is otherwise nonsense have understood referents shared by one’s cultural subgroup. 

The gradual shift towards what I like to call “the adolocentric society” has pushed us further towards use of restricted code much of the time. And since restricted code does not require spelling and grammar or avoidance of colloquialisms, to be effective, spelling and grammar are viewed by many as dispensable when it comes to oral or written communication. Ironically, where restricted code could traditionally have been viewed as exclusionary – something that only I and my friends share and that you cannot be a part of – it is now elaborated code that gets treated as exclusionary and elitist. If U can spel gud, yer a snob.

Would I judge the person whose spelling and grammar are lacking? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Would I judge the societal norms that produced them? You betcha."

posted at 12:36



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