Whether it’s positive or negative, it’s nice to get responses to this column. For the most part, that consists of comments on social media: which can be a reaction to what the column is about, or just a reaction to the headline.
More gratifying, and often touching, is when people go to the trouble of using old-fashioned snail mail. I’ve received some long, thoughtful letters, a book and a knitted hat for an elf. But among this group are some who, presumably, don’t have the time or feel the need to write a letter. Instead, they rip the page from The Irish Times Magazine and scrawl their message on the column itself. One included what could be described as a point-by-point rebuttal: they wrote “No!” and “Nonsense!” beside various paragraphs, though without explaining why. One scribbled “PROPAGANDA”, and another circled words that I had used incorrectly.
This last piece of correspondence was, to me, the most interesting – and a bit embarrassing – because the correspondent was correct: I had used the wrong words. I had written “hoards” when I should have written “hordes”; I used “formally” instead of “formerly”. Relatively easy-to-make mistakes, but for someone who is writing professionally, not a great look. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know the differences between these words: I could see the mistakes immediately. When they were pointed out. On the day I wrote the piece, I thought it was fine. Because the spellcheck told me it was.
I just used it on what I’ve written so far. It told me that “spellcheck” doesn’t need to be capitalised, but it had no problem with me not including a hyphen in “old fashioned”, even though most dictionaries do. (I corrected that). It monitors for spelling and grammar, but spellcheck will not find words which are miss used butt spelled rite.
You may be one of those people who feel that computer and smartphone writing aids are infantilising humans; that they may lead to a linguistic apocalypse. And you may be correct. Repeated studies in the US and UK have found a dearth of spelling skills. In one, two-thirds of British people couldn’t spell the word “necessary”. An American academic did a detailed study of student assignments and constructed a list of the 20 most common mistakes. Actually, two lists: one for the post-spellcheck era and one for the time when the technology didn’t exist. For the students with access to computers, spelling was the fourth most common mistake. For the students who (presumably) had to write their assignments by hand, spelling didn’t feature in the list of mistakes at all.
But you may also be one of those people who are a bit more relaxed about these developments. We can’t turn back time. Technology is embedded in our lives, and once you’re aware of the shortcomings, it can be useful. And the language we use has always changed and will continue to. When your doctor sends you a frightening letter, you’d still hope that they spell the word “cholesterol” properly, but in so many other areas of communication, there seems to be a move towards a more informal use of language, where getting everything right seems to be less important; where we use acronyms and emojis instead of words. “Dear Ms McDonald” is being replaced by “Hi Mary Lou”. Spelling may become one of those life skills we feel we don’t need any more, or at least one that is less important: like sewing or the ability to read a paper map. It may be the case that in a century from now, written English could be radically different from the variety we use today.
In the meantime, it’s best to be kind and not too judgemental about the way other people express themselves. We are all human. We all make mistakes. The person who circled my incorrectly-used words also spelled my name wrong.