Roughly three-quarters of Brits claim to be very good or fairly good spellers, but a 2012 study tells a different story. One in five adults failed to spell five common words correctly on a short spelling quiz. A third of those surveyed failed to spell “definitely” and “separate,” while 65 percent couldn’t manage to spell “necessary.” These words are regularly used in everyday life, so how could so many people get them wrong?
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It seems autocorrect is to blame, as the 2,000 respondents said they used the technology extensively. There was also a massive gap between youngsters who grew up with digital devices and older respondents. Students were the worst spellers of the bunch, with just 13 percent earning a perfect score. The highest marks were observed amongst women 65 and over.
Is Autocorrect Really to Blame?
It’s easy to point fingers at autocorrect and spellchecking software, but perhaps there are other factors at play. It’s notable that spelling, grammar, and punctuation haven’t been tested by schools in many Western nations in the past decade — including the UK, where the above study was held. The poor spellers were never penalized for their poor spelling skills as older generations were, so they had no impetus to change their behavior.
A 2005 study found typists make more spelling errors when spellcheck is turned on than they do when it’s turned off. This might indicate an over-reliance on the technology, but it also points to something else. It’s not that people can’t spell anymore. The research’s subjects could come up with the correct spelling independently when they needed to. However, when spellcheck was enabled they knew this safety net would catch their errors. It stands to reason that this would speed up typing and increase efficiency as the technology eliminates the need to consult a dictionary.
Even Professors Say Spelling and Grammar Don’t Matter
Perhaps we should worry more about researching ways to prevent identity theft and ensuring our racy selfies don’t end up on Facebook than our spelling and grammar online. Professor Sugata Mitra, an educational researcher from the University of Newcastle, certainly thinks so and believes the English disciplines have no place in modern classrooms.
“Firstly, my phone corrects my spelling so I don’t really need to think about it and, secondly, because I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way,” he told British education magazine TES earlier this year.
When even academics are trusting autocorrect to worry about their spelling and grammar, surely we can consider our appetite for these English fundamentals well and truly spoiled.
English Lovers Slam Professor’s Views
While Professor Mitra’s comments point to autocorrect’s victory over this generation’s appetite for spelling and grammar, the backlash against them suggests differently. A day after his views were published, Mitra tweeted “I am getting rude mail, in perfect English, about this,” along with a link to The Telegraph article featuring excerpts of the TES interview.
The horrified reactions he received were mirrored by English-loving bloggers around the planet.
“Technology isn’t infallible. Even at the basic level of spelling, things can go badly wrong,” blogger Emily wrote on Working the Words. “There are whole websites dedicated to posting smartphone autocorrect fails, where messages have been completely changed by spell-checking software.”
“2013 TED Prize Winner Wrong to Say Spelling, Grammar Don’t Matter,” Calvin Wolf wrote as the headline on his Yahoo Voices article.
The responses of these writers and the English lovers who contacted Professor Mitra to express their disapproval in such “perfect English” perhaps provide the strongest evidence that autocorrect could never spoil a generation’s appetite for spelling and grammar. It’s simply not possible while there are people ready to fight for these English building blocks.
Autocorrect is a useful tool now found on every smartphone, Lenovo tablet, or PC, but the danger comes when it stops correcting honest mistakes and starts filling in the blanks for an illiterate generation. Whether we’ll ever get to that point remains to be seen.
Miles Young is a freelance writer, designer, and tech/business columnist. When he’s not writing about the latest in technology, he’s windsurfing or walking his dog Max.