Re: general topic of spelling

Subject: Re: general topic of spelling
From: Dick Margulis <margulisd -at- comcast -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 15 Jun 2005 20:44:14 -0400

Ahhh, a favorite topic ;-)

James Jones wrote:

What your thoughts on the general topic of spelling difficulties in
written English and the preparing of technical documents?

Orthography in English is an encoded representation of the language. In this it differs from languages, such as Spanish, where spelling maps cleanly to pronunciation. Those who have the (early) education, the inclination, and the genetic ability to internalize the code have open to them a vast sea of etymological knowledge. To those unfortunates (ever greater in number, thanks to modern educational theories) who do not internalize the code, English spelling is a many-tentacled, snaggle-toothed beast that lurks everywhere.

Specifically, 1 What specific spelling errors have you found to be common to
technical documentation

Loose for lose; lead for led; i.e. for e.g. (neither of which should ever even be in technical documentation, of course); affect/effect confusion; lots of capitalization errors of all kinds. I could go on.

The other huge category is an age-related phenomenon (This Is Spinal Type) I've noticed in myself and many other people over fifty: the fingers type letters and words independently of what the brain thinks it's telling them to type. You'll probably find such errors in this post, and I'll be completely oblivious to them--even after a couple of rereadings--until just after I mail it.

2 What do you think of spell-checking technology and how do you use

I think it sucks and I use it less than I should. Look. There is a way to do spell checking that is far superior to what we have now. I know how to design a better spell checker and I've outlined it broadly, here, on at least one previous occasion. The problem is that it would cost a fair amount to develop a usable product and nobody wants to pay extra for a better spell checker; everyone wants it included for free in whatever word-mangling software they are using at the moment. Most people don't care at all about spelling (and that's okay with me, by the way, despite my occasional grump). The few who do care are already pretty good spellers. So there is no market.

The reason I use it less than I should is that it's a poorly designed feature in most of the applications I use. And I'm lazy, too.

3 How does current search technology perform vis a vis spelling

Google does quite well on a basic Web search. Google Maps (beta) has problems with even a minor misspelling of a place name, though. As Google is the primary engine I use, I can't speak to how other search engines do.

4 Your opinion on the topic of spelling difficulties

Some people have the spelling gene; some don't. I've seen this distinction in pairs of siblings of similar intelligence, interest, and educational experience. Spelling well is a parlor trick and of little importance to the world. So in informal communication, it really doesn't matter. In print, though, correct spelling (along with good grammar and usage in general) shows respect for the reader. In traditional publishing, the author is responsible for organizing ideas into well written sentences and paragraphs, but the publisher is responsible for getting the spelling and the commas right. In most tech writing, where one person wears all the hats and there is no division of labor, the person who does not spell well to begin with is at a slight (but only slight) disadvantage, I think.

If by spelling difficulties you mean the non-phonetic nature of English spelling, that takes us back to my assertion that English orthography is an encoded representation of the language. If you don't get that part--the fact that spelling reflects etymology and that pronunciation cues come from meta-knowledge about English pronunciation more than from the spelling--then you're going to have difficulties figuring out how to spell the words you know aurally.


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general topic of spelling: From: James Jones

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