Rhodri Marsden: How does the internet encourage bad spelling ?


I'm a bit of a spelling fascist, but still have blind spots over words like "privilege" or "separate" that cause me grief and shame; indeed, an inability to reliably spell words like "embarrassment" has long been a source of embarrassment to the English-speaking world. The Spelling Society reckons it's nothing short of a curse, and one that's not even our fault; it stems from a mass of illogical inconsistencies that were firmly cemented by Dr Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 and have left us floundering ever since. But the internet's unfettered explosion of self-expression offer no brownie points for good spelling, and our wrists don't get slapped if we get words wrong. Far from it. And as a result, our spelling is getting worse – or, if you happen to be championing a revised, simplified phonetic system that, say, Hungarians already enjoy, our spelling's getting better. But it's certainly changing.

If this situation wasn't already made evident by the glorious misspelling of "atmosphere" as "apmaspier" by one notable YouTube commenter, Gadgethelpline.com offers slightly more convincing proof. A member of their staff noticed that 28 per cent of 18- to 21-year-olds using the site were spelling "gadget" without the "d" (as opposed to a mere 3 per cent of 30- to 50-year-olds). So they decided to register the domains Gagethelpline.com, Gagithelpline.com, and, just to be on the safe side, Gajithelpline.com; you may well wince as you read that, but the subsequent fortnight brought the website a 5 per cent upswing in new registrations.

Normally I'd side with indignant linguists who insist that something must be done about this appalling situation, but pandering to poor spelling is undoubtedly more profitable than teaching people to spell properly. Google Suggest, a service which automatically kicks in when you incorrectly spell a search term, is such a reliable safety net that I even use it as a dictionary. The free-to-use OpenDNS will gently guide you to, say, Independent.co.uk if you type in Inpendent.co.uk. And a notable precedent was set in the USA two weeks ago when a court ruled that 1,017 misspellings of the domain "Freecreditreport.com" rightfully belonged to the owners of that website, and that they should be confiscated from the "typosquatters" who registered them. In short, if you're a business, there's little point in punishing people who can't spell, because their money is worth just as much as anyone else's. It pains me to say it, but it's even conceivable that the posts on the website at Englishfailblog.com might even stop being funny at some point in the distant future. Can you imagine?

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