Somerset College
Lifetimes Dec 1996

The fundamental importance of poor spelling and plain text

Slim lines of text fire fantastic pictures in the mind, conjured in works from Aristotle to Zeno. What defines these and pictures, dance, sculpture, music, wine et al as art rather than decoration is that it is necessary to comprehend in order to gain satisfactory perception: there is personal work required. The rules are dynamic; the parameters of appreciation vary between experiences.

The right and duty to peers and audience of an author is to play words and rules of words against ideas. Correctness of expression is subjective, adverbs become verbs for purpose of colour, words change pronunciation and spelling, "centre" begets "center" by popular use. Strict adherence to the letter of grammar and spelling is subtle illiteracy; it assumes permanence against a paradigm of change, misunderstanding the concept, function and history of language.

In contrast to the requirements of art, advertising for instance often relies on effortless attraction, drawing attention without perception so as not to distract from focus on the object "to be desired". The purpose is to redirect then suspend the thinking of a being long enough to get money from it. Competition between comparable concepts and products is what market forces are: agents for evolving the concept of "best", and thus defining it, within a mix of similarities... the truly novel stirs the pot, generating undeserved praise for such action without direction. Compliments for the arrangement of the deck chairs on a new ship.

So it is with modern prose via word processors and web, concentration on the floss on the top. Multiple fonts, colours, pictures and style-conforming documents convey content but the electronic effort is in the decoration. It can be changed willy nilly by subtle currents within silicon chips. The content, the intelligence, the imagination presented with such devices cannot be short circuited into existence; it requires personal attention to make and to appreciate....and so delightful designs gain currency as the whirl of market forces mindlessly manufacture a premium for presentations. There is no particular font of all knowledge, any one would do.

The economy that could be made! So many web pages have text-only options because of the size of the accompanying decoration. So much time is spent, paper wasted and megabytes occupied by attempts to make the perfect document, altered and reprinted as files or on paper for the principal principle of presentation. A comma is left out, a reprint is made; a wurd is misspelt, a reprint is made; the backwash of colour for a poem is not quite right, a reprint is made; a document does not conform to institution style rules, a reprint is made (in triplicate).

The managing director of a multi-national computer hardware and software company has banned the use of Microsoft "Power Point" from his organisation after a survey estimated that thousands of man-years had been spent on making "perfect" overhead projector slides. He also considers modern word processers to be information encryption programs and wonders why people need sound in their spreadsheets. The internet fathers bemoan the advent of the web, plain text being the lowest common denominator for transferring ideas, even colourful ones. Text is simple, small and at least capable of being made succinct.

Xerox started it in the 1970's, but didn't know what to do with it. Steve Jobs marketed it in the Macintosh with the support of Microsoft. In the mid 80's the "Gates" of hell opened windows onto our world, unleashing the Hannibal Lecter of the information age, ripping off the Graphical User (inter)face, loading all PC users with the need for color (no, it is most definitely not "colour" anywhere in computing), faster processors, megabytes of RAM which a pundit of five years ago would have thought large for a hard disc, er disk... and disks bigger than many CD's to store it all. Things are changing - smaller, simpler, cheaper - but there is still another generation of gargantuan PC's to come... although as Niels Bohr said "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future".

Rally against complexity and against slavish adherence to rules of form, use a spell wrecker by choice and revel in typographic ambivalence. Email is our great saviour, tersely tossed messages with transposed and missed letters, the value is still there and is seen to be so. Spell phonetically. Where would 'enry 'iggins be without writing that reflected speaking? Mark Twain said, "I respect a man who knows how to spell a word more than one way". Do not get off a train of thought for the baggage of convention, for convention is a passing thing, and it is passing ever faster. Abraham Lincoln said, "The best thing about the future is that it only comes one day at a time", but these days, each day holds more.

I do not advocate anarchy. It would be a pity to die of a misprint after reading a health book. Recognise that "convention" is fuzzy and in flux and should be treated with more verve and less respect. Tradition is essentially habit which has lost its purpose. "Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis." (All things are subject to change and we change with them). Change involves personal action. Will Rogers said, "Even if you are on the right track, you'll get run over if you just sit there".

The Network computer is coming, under $1000 next year, free with your breakfast cereal a little later, it will be very small, portable and connectable. One of the problems of miniaturisation, apart from how to spell the word , is fitting those massive finger tips on one small key at a time. With mobile phones it's bad enough but a full keyboard is a real challenge. Give a thought to those whose alphabets are larger than ours.

I leave you with a potential educational solution for the problem of spelling and number of keys on a keyboard, again from Mark Twain:

...For example, in Year 1 that useless letter "c" would be dropped to be replaced either by "k" or "s", and likewise "x" would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which "c" would be retained would be the "ch" formation, which will be dealt with later. Year 2 might reform "w" spelling, so that "which" and "one" would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish "y" replasing it with "i" and Iear 4 might fiks the "g/j" anomali wonse and for all. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants. Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez "c", "y" and "x" -- bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez -- tu riplais "ch", "sh", and "th" rispektivli.
Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

As always "In God we trust" -- all others pay cash
Bill Taylor

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