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Why I’m Finally Giving Up On Spelling

Please, keep breathing – let me explain.

I’ve decided effective communication is more important than spelling.

There. I’ve said it.

Now before you march down to the comments section and start pelting me with pencil shavings, please hear me out. I’m a trained journalist, not a grammatical vandal, and while your toes may be curling and your hair standing on end, I’m not writing this lightly.

You see, my backstory in English spelling is… complicated.

I’m not an authentic anglophone. English is my fourth language and my adolescence was filled with confusion about the subtle differences between ham and jam.

I took my first real English steps in American, learning to spell color and neighbor and favor with an ‘or’. As you should, right?

I moved to Canada (this part gets a bit confusing), perfected my English, became a journalist and words like colour and neighbour soon replaced their American counterparts.

My newspaper editors taught me stories had to be perfect. Commit murder rather than spell poorly, they said, from the top of their elitist copy desk. How will anyone believe you if you can’t even spell ‘harbour’ properly?

As sometimes happens with foreigners, I became a stellar speller and my colleagues scoured my work for an editorial stumble, a grammatical faux-pas that would bring me down a peg.

Eventually in 2007 I launched Women on the Road and lo and behold, more than half my readers were… American.

What to do? Revert to US spelling? Remain resolutely Canadian?

Would my American readers really mind an occasional double-ell in traveller? Would my other English-speaking followers feel dishonored by a missing ‘u’?

If I lived in an English-speaking country I could plead local custom. But I live in France. My entire cultural heritage is non-English.

So I reached out for advice, a cozy and informal Facebook message to friends who know about things like words.

How annoying. They’re were split down the middle, stirring their cauldron of superiority (you know, my way is better than your way and all that).

In the end there was no getting away from it: I would have to make a decision.

I went with democracy. America won.

And then it all went pear-shaped.

I became confused. My superlative spelling skills deserted me. Had that debt been canceled or cancelled?

The more I thought about words the less certain I was.

Always so sure of my pen, I began hesitating. I faltered and tripped, tricked by a measly letter or two.

My creativity evaporated. Rather than letting my thoughts flow, I wavered over words I had barely noticed before. Instead of finishing a chapter or a story, I’d be stuck on line three, strangled by a once-familiar adverb and running for the dictionary. I became obsessive.

I pasted everything into Word, using UK and American and Canadian spellchecks to compare.

Everything looked wrong.

From questioning my spelling, I started vetting the very words I used. Eventually I avoided writing, more afraid of getting a word wrong than a thought right.

With the abject failure of my spellcheck strategy, I decided to try substitution. When seesawing between labour and labor, why not use the word ‘work’? And couldn’t a neighbour simply become the person next door?

The weakness of this approach became apparent before the thought was even formulated: it cut me off from a multitude of otherwise quite useful words. Imagine crafting stories without honor, behavior, rigor or pretense?

No way. So I’ve opted for the path of least resistance, the one that will once again allow me to communicate.

From now on, I shall ignore spelling differences.

Rather than offend a portion of my readers with my erratic English, I believe I shall offend you all in equal measure.

If I feel like savouring a meal in my parlor, I’ll do that. And if the dishes are the wrong colour, so be it.

I’m not inclined to reprogram(me) myself over and over. I need my writing flow back. 

So listen up, English-spellings-from-different-places: I’ve decided to give you the cold shoulder. (Please, tell me there’s no such word as sholder?)

I henceforth declare war on linguistic differences. To the barricades against language variations!

It does feel a bit criminal to say, but… yes, I may massacre English spelling and murder its vocabulary.

And I trust I’ll feel immensely better as a result.

Does spelling the English or the American way offend your sensitivities? Is a missing letter more important than an evocative story, well told?

Tell me… Does it really matter?

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Evelyn Hannon February 10, 2016, 3:15 pm

    Such a forward thinking woman. With twitter and texting nobody really cares about spelling anymore. In 10 yrs it will be obsolete and you, my dear, will look back and say, ‘I was an innovator,’ 🙂 Atta Gurl!

  • Lynda February 10, 2016, 5:04 pm

    Hello!
    Whilst I do sympathise with your specific dilemma, I do think spelling matters. Not the inclusion or exclusion of a “u”, or an “-am” as opposed to an “-amme”, but some of the spelling that is currently used in texts and tweets can and does lead to miscommunication. And surely it’s accurate communication that really matters?
    PS Four languages? I bow. PPS My current bugbear is losing the word I want, and having to find an (inferior) alternative. I hate old age!
    Best wishes from a boring grammar Nazi ( as I’ve been called!).

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak February 10, 2016, 5:16 pm

      I have a profound respect for spelling, and that’s probably part of the problem. If only we could have ONE spelling per language I’d be in heaven. I’m also a great believe in correct spelling – I simply can’t let these differences take over, as they have done. Since there doesn’t seem to be another way, I’ll have to ignore them. As for losing my words… ahem. Yes. The problem with being a polyglot is that when you can’t find a word in one language, you grasp for another language. And that doesn’t improve writing, spelling OR communication!

  • Heather February 10, 2016, 6:59 pm

    As a Canadian I am pro the extra “u” but as a North American I am more than aware that the US spelling is much more common. I cannot bring myself to spell “color” & “center” is always “centre” (that has nothing to do with English!) but I do not fault those who do. I believe that I would think less of you if you didn’t know the difference between there, their and they’re or its and it’s. And if you didn’t know the plural of “you” is “you” and not “yous.” Or if you ever wrote “I seen” **shudder**. Your “English is not my first language” writing is superb & better than many English is their first language people I know. Spelling schmelling! It isn’t as though you are not spelling it correctly; you are just using a different version. You go girl! I certainly won’t fault you.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak February 10, 2016, 7:15 pm

      Yous all so understanding! 😉 But yes, we’re talking about variations here, not spelling errors. I have no idea how I’ve been spelling these past few years, and I’ll continue not knowing. The difference is that I won’t let it stress me anymore!

  • Jan Moore February 10, 2016, 10:13 pm

    As an Englishman living in the U.S. I sympathize as I have contacts in multiple countries. It’s not just spelling either, it’s words as well. I claimed the quote “two countries separated by a common language” until I discovered that George Bernard Shaw said it first. I’m considering writing an English/American dictionary. As I’m now living in America I’ve adopted the American way otherwise I’d be saying nappies instead of diapers and getting blank looks!
    I will say though that I really object to people who ignore the content and nit pick over spelling in online posts and comments. With the increased use of predictive text we’re all guilty of spelling mistakes and some hilarious gaffes from time to time. Hopefully there aren’t any in this comment!
    My advice is let the creative juices flow and remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time. ?

  • Judy Adamson February 11, 2016, 12:53 am

    I’m English but I spend a lot of my online working day reading and, to some extent, having to write using US spellings. So when I write my blog posts, I can easily become confused. My solution is to just write and let it flow, not bothering about the spelling and then go back and edit – might that work for you? (BTW, I do think spelling matters – I used to teach literacy – because it’s so much easier and quicker to read correctly spelt writing. But, as others have said, whether you use the UK or US versions is a different matter.)

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak February 11, 2016, 6:56 am

      Writing and letting flow is exactly how I plan to do it. I was writing a few minutes ago and allowed myself a bit of ‘flavour’ – that felt right, and oh so good!

  • Caroline Laing February 11, 2016, 3:57 am

    Merci très chère! Quel plaisir de vous lire. Thank you my dear – lovely reading!

  • Amei Binns March 2, 2016, 2:21 pm

    Dear Leyla,
    I loved this essay and will show it to my German students of English, yes, not American, because it will make them feel much better when they mix spellings.
    Thanks a lot. Your blog is great and eagerly awaited.

  • Sheila April 11, 2016, 2:06 pm

    I totally get your cultural confusion as a child brought up in Canada with close ties to the USA and an antique American dictionary on my desk. I once had the temerity to explain my choice of the (easier) American spellings to a teacher as valid because they were in my dictionary.
    I clicked on this blog post because I thought you had perhaps come up with a workable explanation for all the errors which do not fall under the heading of variation.
    Predictive text and (damn you) auto correct certainly make life interesting but I’m quite sure we should rely on proof reading rather than spell checker … close vs clothes 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak April 12, 2016, 10:29 am

      Completely agree – my work often involves proofreading and some of the more striking errors have been made by a computer, not a human. Good for a laugh,though!

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