Spelling vs Grammar

by Kieran Healy on October 18, 2005

I was listening to the radio and heard the following observation. It was attributed to Dr William Temple (speaking at a school prize-giving in 1938) and apparently is quoted by Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage:

Spelling is one of the decencies of life, like the proper use of knives and forks. But intellectually, spelling—English spelling—does not matter. Intellectually, stops matter a great deal. If you’re getting your commas, semi-colons and full-stops wrong, it means you’re not getting your thoughts right and your mind is muddled.

This would probably be Matthew Yglesias’s position, and it nicely splits the difference between prescriptivists and descriptivists. It seems like a useful distinction for everyday use, and the link between syntax and punctuation is much tighter than that between semantics and spelling. I suppose if I had to choose between always having my sentences parse correctly and always spelling every word properly, I’d choose the former.

{ 36 comments }

1

engels 10.18.05 at 7:19 pm

once of the decencies of life [sp.]

2

Tom Sdcedur 10.18.05 at 7:29 pm

Deos aynnoe else rmbmeeer the acritle a wlihe ago taht mntnioed how ploepe cluod raed wodrs and sntecnes eevn if the mdidle was srelcmbard as long as the frist and lsat ltetres rmaenied uchagnend?

3

susan 10.18.05 at 7:48 pm

semicolons, not semi-colons. (sp.)

4

engels 10.18.05 at 8:11 pm

I don’t think so. Punctuation and spelling are very similar: both are issues only when putting the spoken word into writing. You can think and speak perfectly well without either. Plato, for one, wasn’t big on punctuation but somehow I don’t take this as evidence of a muddled mind.

And nobody uses semi-colons anyway.

And punctuation fetishism á la Lynne Truss is unspeakably dull.

5

Kieran Healy 10.18.05 at 8:18 pm

Deos aynnoe else rmbmeeer the acritle

Yes, in fact I “wrote about it”:http://crookedtimber.org/2003/09/16/word-salad, expressing a bit of skepticism.

6

Gene O'Grady 10.18.05 at 8:25 pm

I’d be very curious to know the evidence that Plato wasn’t big on punctuation. Other than there being no evidence of the use of punctuation for the Greek language in his life time.

7

blah 10.18.05 at 8:39 pm

Here’s a question I’ve had for a while. To what extent is the English language more susceptible to spelling errors than other languages? It seems that English has much more irregular spelling, in comparision to languages with more standardized spelling rules such as Spanish. As a result, wouldn’t one expect greater difficulties with spelling than with grammar or punctuation in the English language? Poor spelling indicates a failure to master individual cases, whereas bad grammar or bad punctuation is more likely to indicate a failure to master the general rule.

8

blah 10.18.05 at 8:43 pm

Here’s another proposition. Spelling does not manifest itself in spoken language, whereas most grammatical functions do. Thus, grammatical errors are more likely to result from a failure to master the rules of language as such, whereas spelling errors are more akin to transcription errors.

9

dearieme 10.18.05 at 8:45 pm

Do you mean “parse” in the sense of “parse” or are you misusing it in the modern American sense of “construe”?

10

Dan Simon 10.18.05 at 8:47 pm

Intellectually, stops matter a great deal.

Nonsense. Aesthetically, stops matter a great deal. But misunderstanding of punctuation rules is no more an indication of faulty thinking than poor spelling would be.

It seems like a useful distinction for everyday use, and the link between syntax and punctuation is much tighter than that between semantics and spelling.

Nonsense again. Sufficiently incorrect spelling can make a text far more difficult to decipher than even the worst punctuation. In fact, while poorly punctuated–even entirely unpunctuated–prose may be unsightly and clumsy to read, its meaning is almost always completely discernible.

The real distinction between spelling and punctuation rules is that spelling rules are completely clear-cut. Hence, anybody can learn to spell as perfectly as anyone else–especially with the help of a dictionary. Who wants to insist on the importance of something that anybody can master?

Punctuation, on the other hand, is a matter of judgment and style, on which reasonable people can, and routinely do, differ enormously. Such disagreements are grand opportunities to indulge the very worst excesses of quasi-intellectual snobbery. Indeed, merely by elevating punctuation over spelling, one discreetly signals that one’s sensitivity to the subtleties of prose far exceeds that of the jackbooted spelling fanatics.

I suppose if I had to choose between always having my sentences parse correctly and always spelling every word properly, I’d choose the former.

Of course–your friends will forgive you the occasional spelling slip-up. But if one were to catch you punctuating like a redneck/businessman/technogeek/middlebrow….

11

Matt Weiner 10.18.05 at 8:59 pm

5: don’t you mean “à”?

12

Matt Weiner 10.18.05 at 9:00 pm

CRAP CRAP CRAP. I meant “4,” not “5.” The nitpicker hoist by his own petard.

13

a 10.18.05 at 9:01 pm

My all-time fave grammatical error, from the website of the Socialist Workers’ Party:

“We oppose everything, which turns workers from one country against those from another.”

http://www.swp.org.uk/where.php

(checks)

awwww… They fixed it :(

14

Matthew Yglesias 10.18.05 at 9:11 pm

For the record, I make no defense of my poor spelling. I just spell badly. Blame phonics.

15

dunno 10.18.05 at 9:14 pm

For those of you saying punctuation is superfluous:

“Bob and Anne, and Rick and Minnie, and Will live at 42, 44, and 45 Main St, respectively.”
“Bob, and Anne and Rick, and Minnie and Will live at 42, 44, and 45 Main St, respectively.”

Our understanding of who’s shacking up with whom and where is a function of the punctuation, and would be whether that punctuation was percieved aurally or typographically.

16

dunno 10.18.05 at 9:24 pm

Dan Simon (10), you’re right. Puncuation is a matter of choice. If I choose to mean, in my prior example, that Anne lives with Bob, I will choose to punctuate as I did in the first sentence. If I choose to mean that she lives with Rick, I will choose to punctuate as in the second example. But if I choose to mean that she lives with Bob, and still punctuate in the second manner, that is my choice; I have chosen to mislead my audience as to my meaning.
There come times where punctuational choices do not necessarily affect meaning (do I insert a comma after the penultimate item in a series, inventory, or list?); this does not mean that such choices are never dictated by a desire for clear meaning.

17

Matt Austern 10.18.05 at 9:50 pm

I strongly suspect it’s true that Plato didn’t use punctuation. It’s a relatively recent invention, isn’t it? My understanding is that ancient manuscripts don’t have punctuation, or for that matter spaces between words.

Knowing this helps you make sense of something that’s said of St. Augustine: one of the marks that he was intellectually gifted was that he was able to read silently, as opposed to out loud. That was unusual. How to make sense of that, other than thinking that he lived in a community of semi-literates? Answer: reading written text was harder in his day.

The last couple thousand years have seen lots of important advances in the technology of written language.

18

Kieran Healy 10.18.05 at 9:56 pm

Do you mean “parse” in the sense of “parse”

I mean “parse” in the sense of “quagga” or “masticate”. (My spelling may differ from yours.)

one of the marks that he was intellectually gifted was that he was able to read silently, as opposed to out loud.

This is a good point: punctuation conventions make texts more readable, but the same is true of typography and so on. The quote is beginning to look empty.

19

engels 10.18.05 at 10:03 pm

#6 All I meant was that Ancient Greek doesn’t have punctuation.

#11 Tu voulez dire que ma francais cé n’est parfait aussi?

#15 yesbutusuallythemeaningisclearwithoutanypunctuationorindeedspacingalthoughit canbehardworktoreadit

Punctuation can sometimes resolve ambiguity. But examples like yours, where it does, are pretty rare, I think. And in many such cases, punctuation won’t be enough. The only way to make the logical form clear for all such sentences would be to use dozens of nested brackets. Somehow, I don’t think that will catch on.

20

jim 10.18.05 at 10:24 pm

Spoken language has lots of non-verbal signals — body language, tone, emphasis — that written language doesn’t have. So the comparison doesn’t help.

Still, privileging punctuation over spelling seems to me wrong. Our standardized punctuation is more recent than our standardized spelling. Fashions in punctuation change. Most earlier English writers punctuated much more lightly than we do; the Victorians, though, punctuated more heavily: when was the last time you saw someone use a colash (a colon, followed by a dash)?

Was it Twain who invented the compositor who inserted a comma every time he took a breath and started a new paragraph every time he yawned?

21

John 10.18.05 at 11:57 pm

Re silent reading, it’s St. Ambrose who was regarded as unusually gifted for silent reading; Augustine mentions this in the Confessions.

22

agm 10.19.05 at 1:06 am

Damn. Straight!

23

melissa spore 10.19.05 at 1:39 am

Could we please get Language Hat or someone from Language Log here to give informed comment? The entertainment value of Speculation is limited.

24

dr ngo 10.19.05 at 2:41 am

Some twenty years ago I attended a seminar by the general editor of the complete works of Herman Melville. While admitting that much of his work consisted of reconciling small discrepancies among various versions of the texts, he insisted that even the most innocuous correction of punctuation could be significant. Imagine, he said, that the first line of Moby Dick ran: “Call me, Ishmael.”

25

Natalie Solent 10.19.05 at 3:38 am

Having marked a good many pieces of writing by children in my time, I disagree with Dan Simon’s “Sufficiently incorrect spelling can make a text far more difficult to decipher than even the worst punctuation.”

Mis-spelled words only really cause confusion when, by sheer chance, the sentence still makes sense with either of two possible meanings. Since most homophone pairs have no logical connection with each other this does not happen often. “I got board waiting to meat my frend” does not confuse.

Some punctuation error’s are similarly grating. but, not, confusing.

However many potential punctuation errors are more like the one quoted by “a” in comment #13, “We oppose everything, which turns workers from one country against those from another.” Thousands of possible sentences could be moulded by this malfunctioning template and still come out making sense, but not the sense the writer intended.

This boils down to a point similar to that made by “blah”.

Finally, I must disagree with Melissa Spore. Let’s keep pesky experts out of this. They would only spoil the fun.

26

Scott Martens 10.19.05 at 5:34 am

Mmm… I’m about as prescriptivist as its possible to get and still actually be a linguist, and all that means is that I think it’s normal that people should want to not sound like nitwits when they speak or write and that the things we teach them about language ought to reflect this. The truth is that language is pretty redundant, that most of the time the niceties can be ignored without loss of meaning, and that the minutiae aren’t really so big a deal. But, if you don’t know all the bizarre, archaic, often stupid rules of spelling and punctuation, you run the risk of looking like a dolt.

On the other hand, sound empirical studies show that prescriptive rules of style, spelling and punctuation can make language both easier to write and easier to read, but often don’t. In most of the world, these facts are taken seriously even if they are widely ignored. Good solid studies show that it’s easier to read written Texts when all the Nouns are capitalised like in German, while I expect that the English rules concerning Capitalisation – that all Words derived from proper Nouns must have Capitals – actually make it harder. Generally, you can safely put a comma in English where there is a pause in speech without screwing up or looking like an idiot, in contrast to German, which uses too many commas to make sense.

But one should avoid vulgar Orwellism in thinking about language. Unclear language does not intrinsically imply unclear thought any more than allowing same-sex marriage denies people the ability to make distinctions between gay and straight relationships. (A misconception all too common to people and lawyers alike, particularly Maggie Gallagher over at the Volokhs.)

27

serial catowner 10.19.05 at 8:34 am

Bad punctuation actually becomes an art form, and George Bush is a good illustration.

Examine what he says- it appears to be a lie, but the grammer is so bad that it can actually be the truth. His followers think he’s telling them the soothing lies they need to hear, but in a courtroom it would be hard to convict.

You can also see this in the briefs filed by corrupt lawyers. They appear to have stupid grammatical errors, but, strange to say, many of them form an escape hatch for the lawyer if the brief is ever closely examined.

Another interesting place to watch grammer in action is the play-by-play sports broadcaster. Too bad George missed his true calling.

28

Nash 10.19.05 at 9:47 am

while poorly punctuate–even entirely unpunctuated–prose may be unsightly and clumsy to read, its meaning is almost always completely discernible.

Tell that to the one, two, or three people confusingly doomed by the muddledness of:

This execution warrant is for Bob a pianist and a cellist.

This execution warrant is for Bob, a pianist and a cellist.

This execution warrant is for Bob, a pianist, and a cellist.

This execution warrant is for Bob–a pianist and a cellist.

Oh, and “execution” was a misspelling; we meant to say “execration.” Our regrets to the family or families of Bob a pianist and a cellist.

29

Tim 10.19.05 at 9:50 am

THe increasing importance of grammar and spelling goes along with the increasing meritocracy of society. If you hire a man because his father worked for your father, or you get into Harvard because your father did, or even if you hire (or admit to your university) people based on personal recommendations, you don’t have to concern yourself with spelling and grammar. Whereas if you need a quick way to weed out unqualified applicants for whatever merit-based position you’re offering, spelling and grammar are a quick way to winnow the field.

Serial catowner — I defend sportscasters against all sorts of calumnies on the basis that it’s really hard to talk completely ad lib for a few hours straight without saying a few dumb things! But you can see certain things happening in sportscasterese that will soon be part of everyday speech: loss of the subjunctive mood, for one:
“If he catches that pass, they win the game” (when he missed the pass).

30

David Gillies 10.19.05 at 11:52 am

Blah (no. 7)—the regularity of spelling in Spanish does indeed make mistakes less likely; there is one pitfall, at least in the Costa Rican Spanish with which I am most familiar: a ‘b’ and a ‘v’ are sounded identically as a voiced bilabial fricative (which does not exist in English). This can lead to mis-spellings, particularly among the less well-educated. Examples I have seen include ‘travajar’ instead of the correct ‘trabajar’ (to work), ‘dever’ instead of ‘deber’ (to owe) and, most amusingly, between ‘botar’ (to throw out, as in garbage) and ‘votar’ (to vote.)

31

JRoth 10.19.05 at 12:39 pm

Actually, just a few minutes ago on another blog (I can’t track back to it now) there was a failure in parallelism between “which” and “that” plus a possibly misplaced comma, all resulting in an actually unreadable sentence – I gave up after 2 rereads. It was simply impossible to suss out what, precisely, the writer had intended to say.

I might agree that punctuation is often malleable, but grammar as a whole is pretty critical to any but the simplest of communications.

Oh, and I think that people undervalue the etymological clues built into English’s famously non-orthogonal orthography. It may be easier to muddle through a poorly spelled sentence than a poorly constructed one, but the communication suffers.

32

Shelby 10.19.05 at 4:08 pm

In the non-Gallagher portion of Volokh today, Jim Lindgren examines the puncuation (and more) in Harriet Miers’ response to the Senate pre-hearing questionnaire. It ain’t pretty.

33

Kenny Easwaran 10.20.05 at 2:43 am

30 – exactly the example I was going to give about Spanish, though both Spanish and Mexican, rather than Costa Rican! When everything’s so regular, it’s easy to mess up the few minor irregularities.

34

Kevin F 10.21.05 at 8:01 am

Spelling and punctuation are equally critical. Their utility varies according to the specific sentence being written, but routinely deprived of correct forms of one or the other simply results in bad writing.

Good writing is like good cooking. Ingredients, placed in just the right combination, at just the right time, become something sublime. True, anyone can make a peanut butter sandwich, and poorly spelled and ungrammatical sentences can convey a simple message.

But sometimes, I want to read a book with flair, and fun, and artistic sensibility. My God, some people can write. Sometimes it’s difficult to finish a few paragraphs by Saul Bellow, just because the writing is so beautiful. To re-read those sentences, even aloud, is a joy.

But spelling versus grammar? It’s like trying to choose between wit and wisdom. I want both.

35

engels 10.21.05 at 10:36 am

True, anyone can make a peanut butter sandwich, and poorly spelled and ungrammatical sentences can convey a simple message.

But sometimes, I want to read a book with flair, and fun, and artistic sensibility. My God, some people can write. Sometimes it’s difficult to finish a few paragraphs by Saul Bellow, just because the writing is so beautiful.

I’ve often thought about what that indefinable quality is that makes Bellow so great. Now I know. He spells and punctuates correctly.

36

Kevin F 10.21.05 at 10:42 am

Re: “I’ve often thought about what that indefinable quality is that makes Bellow so great. Now I know. He spells and punctuates correctly.”

Oh, for Pete’s sake. I meant that Bellow’s thoughts were expressed beautifully, in part because of good sentence structure and spelling. If his sentences instead included gross or frequent spelling errors, and the grammar made his thoughts hard to follow, he would not *be* Bellow.

Criminey.

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