NPR Story
11:48 am
Wed August 7, 2013

In An Autocorrect Generation, Does Spelling Still Matter?

Originally published on Fri August 9, 2013 4:57 am

Connecticut eighth-grader Thomas Hurley has serious beef with Alex Trebek.

The “Kids Jeopardy” contestant made it all the way to the Final Jeopardy round and even got the right answer. The only problem? He spelled it wrong.

We’ve decided in current society that spelling is important — that there’s only one single correct way to spell every word.
–Simon Horobin

Hurley told his local newspaper that he was “cheated” out of the question and that “it was just a spelling error.”

Social media has exploded in defense of Hurley — and in defense of the show.

In today’s Autocorrect, text-messaging culture, does spelling still matter? Simon Horobin, a professor of English language and literature at Oxford University, says yes.

“It matters in the sense that we’ve decided in current society that spelling is important — that there’s only one single correct way to spell every word,” Horobin told Here & Now.

Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and a former spelling champion herself, says it comes down to clear communication.

“What we see as important is that when you spell well, you are creating an environment where your message to the reader is unimpeded, where you can be the most effective and influential communicator out there,” Kimble said. “You see where Alex [Trebek] was trying to read Thomas’ response and he tripped up. He tripped on what? The spelling. And so good spelling is just a component of effectiveness in your communication.”

It’s worth remembering though, Horobin said, that proper spelling is a relatively recent phenomenon.

“If we go back to the middle ages, then there was no single spelling system — everyone spelled as they wished,” Horobin said. “And it’s really with the introduction of the printing press that we started to see the process of standardization. But even the last 100 to 200 years, there’s considerable variation in spelling.”

To some extent, the age of texting and tweeting may be reviving that spell-as-you-wish culture.

“What’s happening now on the Internet is that as more and more text is going onto the Internet and not going through the traditional printing process … text that goes directly on the Internet is often not checked, and so there’s much more varying spelling out there. And as people come to see that and read it, that spelling becomes more acceptable,” Horobin said.

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