Where Have All the Good Words Gone?

Writers should be concerned. Maybe not worried but at least concerned.  I was on a plane last week, reading a copy of USA Today and was troubled by a headline that read: Do texting, tech spell trouble?

Maybe it does.

Today’s communication is all about speed.

Television news, for example, is nothing more than sound bites. The reason I have stubbornly read newspapers for years is because I can get the whole story, not just the standard, shoot-from-the lip, sixty-second version of the story from a talking head or a lipstick girl.

The newspaper reporter may be biased. The reporter may have a personal agenda. But at least I am given the who, what, where, when, and usually how of a good story. TV news is seldom more than glorified headlines leaving me with questions that are never answered either today, tomorrow or later this week.

And now into our lives comes the fine art or dastardly art of texting.

It has brought about a brand new format of spelling or, as the social scientists say, chat abbreviations: R U there? Y did he go?  Here is how far it’s gone, and maybe I’m just old and just now finding out. ? can mean I have a question or I don’t understand what you mean. @TEOTD means at the end of the day. 121 means one to one. 143 means I love you, and 1432 means I love you, too.

I fear that someday I will be picking up books that suddenly have a new language of their own, and I can’t read any of it: “It was a drk and strmy nt.” Or, ATM, I saw ASITS and I BASOR. (At the moment, I saw a star in the sky and I breathed a sigh of relief.) I don’t make this stuff up. I just quote it as written.

Even emails have contributed to the problem, and none of us can live without emails. I am as guilty as anyone.

There was a day, however, when letters were written properly and formally, then carefully edited by a secretary or an assistant to make sure that each sentence was properly punctuated and each word properly spelled. The letters all began with “Dear Mr. Or Mrs. Or Ms.” And they ended with a phrase of respect: “Yours truly. Best Regards. Or Sincerely.”

Now we dash emails off the tops of our heads with the speed of light, writing with a hit and a promise to ourselves to do better next time, and we never do.

Words jammed together.

Sentences jammed together.

Thoughts scattered and random.

Get it written and get it out. Now. Not later. Don’t worry about how it reads. The information, the data, it holds is all that matters.

No “Dear.”

And no “Sincerely.”

Civility has packed up and taken the last train out of civilization.

Spelling has suffered the worst and some are predicting that spelling, or the lack of it, will soon become a national crisis.  In the USA Today article, Louisa Moats, the author of several textbooks about language, was quoted as saying that good spelling, in a word, means credibility.

“If a paper or an application or a report or even an email contains spelling errors,” she said, “People who read it judge it harshly.”

According to her research, job applicants, who misspell words on a resume, are rarely called in for an interview.

Just as certain, authors who fill their books with misspelled words don’t last long in a marketplace that didn’t need a new novel anyway.

People may read the first book. They make think the story is a great one. But they probably won’t read the next one. Or the next.

Readers don’t want their authors to appear illiterate,

As USA Today reported, many schools now give the subject of spelling short shrift in instruction. “That’s the shocking thing,” Moats said. “You can walk into many classrooms these days, and there is no spelling program; there is no spelling book.”

At best, spelling is an afterthought.

Too many are relying on spell-check technology, and there’s the rub. Spell-check does not replace the dictionary in a child’s brain.

Mignon Fogarty, a writer who hosts the popular Grammar Girl podcast, says that people are more likely to use the wrong word than to misspell one.  She pointed out that she had come across a real estate listing that touted a home’s “volted ceilings.”

“Spell check may be helping us spell more words properly,” she said, “but we’re still in trouble when we don’t know which of those properly spelled words to choose.”

As writers, we love words.

We love the poetry in words.

We love the rhythm of words.

As writers, words are our lives.

But if words are commonly used the wrong way, if words in our books are commonly misspelled, we stand on the threshold of forever losing the strength and the power of words.

Then where will we be?

Or, worse, will it even matter anymore?

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