Spelling and Grammar

When I was a student in grade school I didn’t think that I would become a writer. I was interested in airplanes and flying and didn’t worry much about English and spelling. I remember looking at the adult men in my life whom I admired and realizing that none of them had neat handwriting. As a result, I quit putting energy into penmanship. I stopped working at all of the neat circles and loops of the Palmer Method. Later, when I got to college, I had to put significant effort into teaching myself to spell. In the days of typewriters, before word processors and auto correct, making a mistake in typing required significant effort to correct. We had correction tape that we could put on the paper and cover up a mistake, then go back and retype, but it didn’t change the spacing. More than once, I had to retype an entire page because of a mistake. the process taught me to be more attentive to spelling and grammar.

Regular readers of my journal will note that I make mistakes. My journal posts are unedited and there are often mistakes in grammar and spelling that I miss. I have a basic spell checker, but the software has its limitations, not the least of which is a limited vocabulary. It is not uncommon for me to use words, especially proper names, that the spell checker does not know. I find myself overriding it on occasion. There is also a rudimentary grammar checker that came with my word processing software. It, too, gets ignored on occasion. It doesn’t do well with contractions and Ive caught it making mistakes with homonyms such as “their” and “there.” It can also make mistakes with subject and verb agreement, especially in complex sentences.

Those skills, carefully honed decades ago, are not as valuable as they once seemed. Penmanship is not a subject taught in elementary school any more. Many schools are not teaching cursive writing these days. The days of weekly spelling lists are also past for many elementary students. It is assumed that they will live in a world of automation where writing will be edited primarily by machines.

The world of publishing has changed dramatically in the past two or three decades. When we started writing for publication, we would prepare a first draft of an article or document that was submitted in hard copy (printed on paper) to an editor. We always kept a spare copy in case of a problem in the mail. That copy was edited by hand, usually with a red pen and returned with additional comments for a re-write. The second draft was submitted the same way: Printed on paper. We thought it was quite a step forward when FedEx made it possible to get documents delivered within 24 hours.

When computers and electronic word processors became common, we began to be able to submit electronic copies of our documents. At first we mailed floppy discs in a similar manner to the way we had submitted hard copy. Then, as Internet speeds picked up, we began exchanging documents electronically. Now we have software that allows for collaborative work. Multiple writers can work on the same document at the same time and the computer uses colors to distinguish input. Then the document can be compiled and a final draft produced.

I enjoy collaborative work. I’ve worked professionally both as a writer and an editor and I’ve enjoyed both roles. But those roles, too, are fading. More and more editorial work is done by algorithms. Machines “auto correct” errors. The problem is that the limitations of the automation become clear in final copy. It is not at all uncommon for me to find errors in grammar and spelling in magazines, journals and newspapers. Professional editing is a skill that is less and less sought and there are publishers who no longer employ editors. Self-publication has become an affordable option for writers and I find myself reading more and more books that painfully show the lack of editing.

So far I have resisted purchasing a subscription to Grammarly, a commercial software whose name is not recognized by my computer’s spell checker. There are many professionals who are pleased to pay the $11.66 each month for the tools for their computer to check grammar and spelling with expert help in law, healthcare, academia, marketing, engineering, sports and general journalism. Most college and graduate school students and many professionals find it well worth the monthly fee to have their writing automatically edited by the machine. My resistance has been partly financial. I’m not convinced that it is worth the price when I have fairly good spelling, grammar and editorial skills. Another part of my resistance, however, comes from my fear of losing my skills. If I only have to come close to clear writing and allow the machine to make corrections, will I become lazy about spelling? Will I quit pondering grammar challenges? Are there dangling participles that I’ll be left with? (Just a little joke.)

Perhaps the current generation of students will be more wildly creative and adventurous because they have been freed from weekly spelling tests and the chores of re-writing and editing. Maybe they will be able to accomplish even more once machines take over those tasks that once required practice and skill. There might, however, be a downside. Back in the days of typewriters and hard copy, with the painful process of re-typing page after page, with no “cut and paste” options other than starting over again, I really became intimately familiar with what I was writing. I knew every word. The repetition of re-typing and the re-reading required for spell checking and editing meant that I would read a document that I wrote multiple times. I became familiar with it. There were some pages of my college papers that I nearly memorized. These days written words seem to cary less weight. They come at a lower cost and we seem to value them less.

For now, my plan is to publish my journal without the assistance of Grammarly. Readers will be free to judge whether or not that is a good decision.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!