Re: Common Errors in English

Subject: Re: Common Errors in English
From: "Mark Baker" <listsub -at- analecta -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 25 Feb 2004 00:01:26 -0500

Bruce Byfield wrote:

> I think we're both speculating here, but my take is that reading by
> visual patterns may be at least partly due to the fact that many moderns
> don't read phonetically, and those of us who can don't do so very often.

I couldn't prove without more research than I am willing to do for this
purpose, but I'm pretty sure that reading by pattern recognition is the
brain's natural optimization, not something we are forced into by lack of
phonetic spelling. After all, we are not taught to read that way, it just
seems to happen over time. It is, I suspect, part of what it means to be

> Every now and then, I've come across a book that deliberately uses
> non-standardized spelling, like Russell Hoban's Ridley Walker, or Avram
> Davidson's Limekiller stories, which phonetically reproduce the speech
> patterns of Belize. When I first start to read these works, my reading
> speed goes way down. However, after about ten pages, I find that I'm
> reading at more or less my normal rate. I don't know if I'm typical, of
> course, but, from my experience, I don't think that standardized
> spelling makes that much difference.

I'm at the opposite end of the scale. I find phonetic reproduction of
accents completely unreadable, and no amount of perseverance seems to
improve things.

Similarly, I find phonetically spelled manuscripts very hard to read. The
interesting question, of course, is how fluent most of us would become if we
had to read phonetically spelled writing all the time (by which I mean
writing in which every author makes up his own phonetic spelling and makes
no attempt even to be consistent even in how an individual word is spelled
within the document). Clearly we would be better than we are when we first
encounter it today. Would we approach the fluency we have with modern
consistent spelling? I doubt it. I wonder if any studies have been done.

However, like it or not, eighteenth century spelling is culturally engrained
and there is nothing any of us can do about it now.

> Also, if reading is difficult with non-standardized spelling, wouldn't
> writing be as well? Yet Shakespeare, Jonson, and dozens of other
> writers were prolific by any standards.

Transcription speed is a very minor part of literary productivity. If you
wrote just 2000 words a day, and took weekends off, you would produce half a
million words a year. That's eight mystery novels or two Steven King
doorstops a year. According to the complete works
of Shakespeare contain only 884,647 words. (Gotta love Google!) That's under
two year's production at 2000 words a day. Yet a mediocre typist can type
2000 words in under an hour.

> Moreover, the reason for standardization may have less to do with
> convenience that with a wish for order and science.

You are probably right. But the reason that standardization was proposed and
the reason that it persists may be two quite different things. And what is
interesting about spelling is that it resists all attempts at reformation
even though we know that it has drifted way out of sync with the language.

Order and science would presumably argue for phonetically accurate spelling.
Adopting a single consistent phonetic spelling for each words would be both
orderly and scientific. And changing the spelling periodically to match
changes in pronunciation would also make sense. But that isn't what happens.
The peculiar and difficult thing about spelling is not that it is
standardized but that it is immutable. It is neither orderly nor scientific
today. It is a stubborn relic of the eighteenth century. And there doesn't
seem to be anything we can do about it.

Tech writing tie in? Language and communication are cultural, not logical.
The answer to so many questions posed on this list is simply that no matter
how you may think people ought to communicate, they actually do communicate
in the sometimes eccentric and peculiar way that their culture or profession
dictates. Its not our job to reform them. Its our job to learn how they
communicate and communicate with them after their own fashion.

Mark Baker
Analecta Communications


Re: Common Errors in English: From: Mark L. Levinson
Re: Common Errors in English: From: Bruce Byfield

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