Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
A Geek Explains Spelling to Other, Non-Spelling Geeks

Slashdot is running the king of all meta-discussions today, in which the management (the notorious CmdrTaco) says that he doesn't care about spelling and grammar because that's never the point of what's being said. Commenter SIGPFE, for the first time in my experience, explains, in a way that might get through to the kind of nerd who's proudly blind to these errors, how constant misspellings and other mistakes infuriate those of us who can see them:

It's not just about wincing. The process of reading is pipelined. Humans can scan through text very quickly because while the eye is scanning one word you're parsing the sentence from a few words before and thinking about the meaning of what came before that. When you hit a grammatical or spelling error you cause a pipeline stall. If an incorrect word is used you can often continue for several more words before you discover that the sentence is impossible to parse forcing you to backtrack. Good writers intuitively know how to construct a sentence to lead you towards the correct parsing and make the process of reading as effortless as possible. The Slashdot editors often make reading a chore with readers being forced to scan sentences over and over again in an attempt to find a sensible reading.

People have been endeavouring to write well for centuries. It's funny how the Slashdot editors can suddenly decide that this entire tradition is worthless. Have they not noticed that writers have been trying to convey a message other than "I can spell" for aeons and yet still make the effort to spell correctly as a courtesy to their readers?

When you write text on a forum like Slashdot every minute you spend writing translates into thousands of minutes of reading. People would do well to remember that.


But having said that, there remains the substantial number of people in the discussion who say that they really, truly aren't slowed down by text filled with misspellings and similar errors. Despite my unshakable belief that people like this are stupid -- because you just can't be a frequent reader and not develop that nails-on-a-blackboard response to bad spelling -- the facts may be against me, and much as I'd like to maintain my belief, I'm forced to admit that if these people really can read misspelled text without being bothered, and do it as well as I can read "proper" text, then they're just better at reading than I am. The bastards.

I'm also curious if any actual research has been done into this feeling of being rubbed the wrong way by bad use of language. I don't even know if that would fall under linguistics or psychology. I do know that it has been suggested that pre-WWII Germans were irritated by the sound of Yiddish, which is a dialect of German and which they considered a "degenerate" form of the language, although it may be hard to untangle cause and effect there. And for that matter there's no shortage of Americans who love to mock "Ebonics".

[edited: "cause and effect", for God's sake.]

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