Misspellings show language's evolution, but does that mean they're OK for journalists to use?

A misspelling on a Manhattan crosswalk, which was painted with the phrase “shcool x-ng” instead of “school crossing,” created a nationwide stir last week. Some called the misspelling “embarrassing” and “sloppy,” and those involved deferred the blame.

When I first heard about the reaction, the reporter and copy editor in me said, “Really? That’s horrible!” But, depending on who you talk to, misspellings may not be so reproachable.

In an essay published today on Wired.com, Anne Trubek says our obsession with correct spelling is a remnant of the Gutenberg era. She criticized spellcheckers and autocorrect for reinforcing a traditional spelling standard, and said we need new tools that account for more variations.

Wired Copy Editor Lee Simmons wrote a response to Trubek’s piece, saying she draws the wrong conclusion. Correct spelling is even more important during the digital age, he says, in part because computers don’t use context to decipher typos. (He has a point: just think about all the funny typos and misspellings on the “Damn You, Autocorrect!” site.) Simmons adds that “our spelling standard, for all its oddities, is a universal, inclusive code” that makes the English language less confusing.

The two arguments illustrate what Jeff Deck, author of “The Great Typo Hunt,” calls “the hawk versus hippie dilemma.” Deck, who traveled the country looking for typos, says there are the "grammar hawks" who look for non-traditional spellings of words and are quick to call them mistakes. And then there are those who take a free-spirited, free-for-all approach to spelling.

Journalists, it seems, need to strike a middle ground by both acknowledging that language is changing and avoiding misspellings that could confuse readers or distract them from the news.

Trubek, an associate professor of rhetoric, composition and English at Oberlin College, told me via email that she thinks journalists should be open to the idea of using different spellings.

“I do not think it is OK to use misspellings in journalism. However, if conventions of spelling change, as I think they will -- and are already -- then there will be variant and alternative spellings that will be familiar to many readers,” she said. “Journalists who are stuffy about the ‘correct' way to spell in these cases will be missing the larger point, and enforcing dated ideas about language.”

Tracking language changes

Words -- and the way we spell them -- no doubt change as we find new ways to communicate. Traditional dictionaries like Merriam-Webster are taking note of the changes but aren’t quick to add new words or acknowledge misspellings. Sites such as Wordnik and Urban Dictionary, on the other hand, have entries for misspelled words like “l8r,” “aight” and “dunno.”

As Wordnik founder and lexicographer Erin McKean told me last month, “If a word is persuasive enough, and if your usage is provocative enough and feels real enough, you can make a word mean what you want it to mean.” The same could be said for the spelling of words. Spelling mistakes, after all, have played a big part in the evolution of language.

And sometimes, they’ve added more clarity. The word "lede," for instance, was created to avoid confusion in the newsroom. The American Heritage Dictionary says the word “lead” was “revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from lead, [a] strip of metal separating lines of type.” Now, "lede" is no longer considered misspelled, though some consider it dated. (Other journalism terms that are "misspelled": hed, dek, and graf.)

Mapping the middle ground

I’d rather introduce new words to the language than misspell old ones. I think other journalists would agree that there’s value in following spelling standards in news stories, essays and other published work.

Partly, we're proud. (“Outsmarting spellchecker” is no. 55 on the list of “Stuff Journalists Like.”) But we also value accuracy. We want to get our facts straight and spell words right -- not just to avoid corrections but to offer as much clarity as possible to the reader.

Writing "wanna” instead of “want to,” or “plz” instead of “please" signals laziness.

Once you start using misspelled words -- even if they’re commonly accepted in the world of text messages and instant messages -- you lose a segment of your audience that may not be as familiar with these words. And you start walking down a slippery slope toward misinterpretation and errors.

In his book "Regret the Error," my colleague Craig Silverman said that "the typo is by far the most common and hilarious" journalism error. I'm not surprised. Journalists frequently misspell my name and have come up with some funny variations of it.

When we spell words and people’s names right, we show that we care. Research has shown that inaccuracies cause the public to lose trust in the media. Particularly when it comes to misspelled names, sources may assume that if a reporter got a name wrong, he or she may have gotten other more significant facts wrong, too.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to correct misspellings when quoting text messages or emails that include them. We can learn a lot about people from the way they spell and communicate in writing. To correct their misspellings would seem inauthentic.

The "Typo Hunt"'s Deck, who has confronted several people about misspellings, pointed out that language is personal. “Even if it’s just a sign you wrote about a sale on watches, it’s still something you’re putting out that you wrote," he said in an interview with Salon. "So if someone comes along and says, ‘This is spelled wrong,’ the automatic reaction is, ‘They’re criticizing my writing, they’re criticizing me.’”

None of us is infallible. We’re going to spell names incorrectly, and we may even spell “school” wrong on a public crosswalk. Misspellings can help shape language over time. But journalists are better off keeping them in text messages and out of stories.

As Wired's Simmons wrote, you might not look up the spelling of a word when sending a text message. "But when what you’re writing actually matters; when you want to earn the reader’s trust by signaling that you’ve put real care into your blog post; and ultimately, when you care more about the reader’s experience than your own in writing it, you’ll make that small extra effort."

  • Mallary Jean Tenore

    As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website, Poynter.org, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the site's live chats. I also help handle the site's social media efforts, and teach social media sessions on the side.


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