Sending the Write Message
By Cynthia MacGregor / June & July 2012

IF YOU LIVED IN NEW YORK CITY in the 1960s, you may remember the subway placards that advertised a speedwriting school this way. The omitted letters and other shortcuts looked odd to us at the time but now, fifty years later, are all very familiar to those who text or IM (instant message).

The way we read and write is changing rapidly. Most schools no longer teach cursive (script), if they teach penmanship at all, and phonics, in some way an unwitting precursor to the texted shorthand of today.

Not all misspellings today are intentional texted shorthand. Many spelling errors, as well as grammatical gaffes, result from the one-two punch of less instruction in school, coupled with lazy reliance on SpellCheck and GrammarCheck.

Grammarian Richard Lederer, former usage editor of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, and author of 40 books, including The Write Way, Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay, and Comma Sense, is not an antediluvian who scorns the use of modern mechanical help. He says, "I value electronic aids that vet grammar and spelling, and I use them in my writing. But they are not the be-all and end-all, and a writer must master grammar and spelling in order to check the checkers.

"For example, most grammar checkers will flag a 'which' that is not preceded by a comma. That would be correct in a sentence such as 'The sport which I like best is tennis' because 'which' is supposed to kick off a restrictive adjective clause, so the right word is 'that,' not 'which.' But when a grammar checker sounds sirens for 'I know which candidate I like best,' it is trying to change a perfectly good sentence. Here the 'which' clause is a noun clause, not an adjective clause, but the mechanism can't tell the difference."

The Parklander spoke to three students to see where they stood on the need to learn proper spelling and grammar versus relying on technology. Dani Louis, 17, of Boca Raton, told us, "In my opinion, technology does not in fact take away from our education; on the contrary, it provides a learning tool that we will later work with in the future."

Ilyssa Tuttelman, 17, of Boca Raton, had an opposing view: "Technology has ruined our ability to write and our sense of grammar. Everything we write can be checked online to see if it's correct, and, if it's not, the Internet will tell us how to fix it. There's no need to learn about anything in a book. Technology has taken away our ability to think."

Danielle Mackson, 16, of Miami, has a very sensible attitude: "Although it has become acceptable for digital writers to ignore proper grammar and spelling, these skills continue to be necessary for success. Proper grammar and spelling are vital to being an intelligent, educated person. Writing is crucial in school and the real world. Whether you are writing as a student or as a worker, your intelligence is often judged by your ability to be a good writer and follow the rules of grammar and spelling.

"Our society would become very uncivilized, if everyone lost the ability to write properly. While it is unreasonable at this point to expect people to write formally in their texts and tweets, an individual should always be expected to write properly in all other aspects of writing."

We also elicited the views of several other educators. David Greenberg, founder of Parliament Tutors in Miami Beach, told us, "Spelling, grammar, word choice, and so on in the digital world are more critical now than ever before. With so many spammers and con artists online, it is important to demonstrate to customers, employees, and other professionals that you are honest and capable. Online communication is often the front line of any business, so take advantage of the power of a well-written email."

Barry N. Liebowitz, principal at International College Counselors, with five offices in South Florida, opines, "Even in the digital age, strong knowledge of grammar and spelling is incredibly important for students applying to college. The advisors at International College Counselors frequently receive essays from students -- even those with the highest grades and test scores -- that contain errors. Even if the mistake seems minor, such as a forgotten comma or an improperly used word, it can make a student come across as careless or lazy. Whenever we work with a student to perfect application materials, impeccable grammar and spelling is one of the first points that we emphasize.

"The application is often a student's only chance to present himself/herself to a college, so grammar and spelling mistakes can be an easily preventable detriment to a student's chances of admission. Many students are so used to word processing programs that check and fix these errors automatically that when presented with an electronic college application -- which does not provide such assistance -- it is easy to overlook simple errors in capitalization, sentence structure, spelling, and more. With only one opportunity to make a strong first impression upon a college admissions committee, remember to double-check everything before submitting, to be sure that impression is a positive one."

Are modern technological aids a help to you (or your children), or are you over-relying on them? One thing is for sure: There are grammar checkers and spelling checkers, but so far nobody has invented a program that will write an entire business letter, college application, or book. We still have to think for ourselves.

The day when a computer can take over that job, too, however, may lurk right around the corner.

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