Friday, December 31, 2010

A bad spell

Some things don’t change for an expat. For me, spelling is one challenge I face every day.

I was always a good speller. In primary school I almost always did well in spelling quizzes. In later years, it wasn’t spelling that cost me points on school assignments.

Back then, of course, one had to know how to spell words or look them up: Personal computers and spellcheck didn’t yet exist. I still remember getting an electronic typewriter (“a what?” young people may be thinking…) in the mid-1980s. It was quite advanced, and if it detected a word it “thought” was misspelled, it would beep at me. At first I thought it was great—until I realised it was often catching words that were actually correctly spelled. It was also annoying when it was right: Stopping typing in mid-flight to go back and correct a word was a pain.

Since then the world and technology have changed a lot. My word processing software catches spelling errors as I go, like the typewriter used to, but it usually corrects them. It highlights the words it doesn’t correct so that I can review them. Web browsers now do that for me, too, like when I leave a comment on a blog.

But for all this to work, one has to pay attention to the spellcheckers and one has to review revisions and proposed revisions—they’re not always correct. To do that, one has to know how to spell. And this is where an expat like me can run into difficulty.

American spellings are different from those of other English-speaking countries—apart from Canada, which mainly uses the same spellings, and Australia, which uses some of the same spellings. The UK does not, and New Zealand, more often than not, uses the same spellings as the UK.

Well, it used to be that way.

Microsoft Word is the software of choice for most people and the US English dictionary is the default. Depending on where you get your software from, it may not even give you the option of installing a New Zealand dictionary. That means that one has to use UK English, while being aware that some words are different (we use “jail” not “gaol” like the UK and Australia, for example).

But because most people use US English as their spelling dictionary, their documents often have US spellings throughout them. This means that folks using that text somewhere else, like on a website or newsletter, for example, have to change the language dictionary and correct spellings the new dictionary doesn’t pick up.

And therein lies a problem: Increasingly US spelling is being considered acceptable alongside New Zealand spelling. How is anyone supposed to know how to spell anything? I take what to me is the only sensible approach and use the New Zealand spellings all the time, for all purposes, including leaving comments on US sites. As I said some four years ago, the best way to adapt to these spellings was to “go cold turkey” and just switch.

But it does leave things a bit of a muddle, and spelling errors can sneak through, and speaking of that, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Even now, after more than 15 years in New Zealand, I often still type “check” instead of “cheque”.

You just can’t rush some things, I suppose. It helps to spell them correctly, though.


Roger Owen Green said...

I was a GREAT speller as a kid. Got 100 on my 5th grade final. But spellcheck, which I first got one of those typewriters you described - I got mine from Sears - has made it worse, has made me mentally lazy. It doesn't help that I cannot type.

Arthur Schenck said...

Sometimes, I actually think that spellcheck is more of a scourge than a help. There's no substitute for learning the basics, as we both did. Point is, if you learn spelling, the failings of technology don't matter so much.