Is Good Spelling Classist?

Everything has the capacity to victimize these days. Even the apostrophes reveal their nasty classist nature. At least, some people think they do:

If it offends your delicate literary sensibilities to see “you’re” in place of “your,” or “it’s” instead of “its,” find a job as a copyeditor. Not everyone has the same education or background as you, or might not be native speakers of English (my dad’s family isn’t). I understand the need to write as cleanly as possible if you want your words to reach and audience, but someone’s Facebook page is hardly prize-winning material. A slip up here and there is understandable. This is one of the subtle ways classism creeps into the progressive blogosphere.

Since we are trading victimizations here, I object to the quoted statement in my capacity as an immigrant. The idea that immigrants are especially likely to make mistakes with the apostrophe in English is evidence of a blatant anti-immigrant bias. Apostrophe-confusion is a problem that English-speakers have. Among my students, I cannot remember a single instance when an immigrant confused “it’s” and “its.” The use of the apostrophe to mark possession is one of the very first things one is taught in English classes.

I also have to report that I never saw any difference between the frequency of these mistakes among my rich students at Yale and my poor students at State U.

People who write “you’re” instead of “your” are not victims of any sort of classist or anti-immigrant bias. They are simply lazy, careless writers who do not respect their readers.

22 thoughts on “Is Good Spelling Classist?

  1. I`ve noticed that, on average, immigrant students do a much, much better job of writing in English than do native speakers. I`m guessing that this is probably one of those instances in which familiarity breeds contempt.

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  2. I agree with Clarissa completely on this issue. I have noticed a significant decline in good English since the advent of the Internet revolution. Eventually, good English will erode seriously if facebook, tweet and twitter encourage individuals to use poor grammar, poor punctuation and poor spelling. The decline is much more noticeable in the United States than in the United Kingdom. I put that down to poor public education in the United States, not to immigration.

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  3. As a non-native English speaker who has taught numerous international students from all over the globe, my experience absolutely confirms this:
    Apostrophe-confusion is a problem that English-speakers have. Among my students, I cannot remember a single instance when an immigrant confused “it’s” and “its.”

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  4. The internet is developing a language of its own. 😉 🙂
    are just some examples. In the grand scheme of things does it really matter especially if you know what they are saying. 🙂 🙂

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    1. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Internet. My students hand in careless, lousy essays that are all but unreadable. Do you think they are careless with “they’re” but careful with everything else? Of course, not.

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  5. I agree with you completely here, Clarissa. I went to a grade “B” high school in rural Tennessee (I do not know the grade of my elementary school, but they were side by side.) We all learned to spell.

    I do think that the use of “it’s” as a possessive is a somehwat natural mistake, since apostrophes are used to denote possession for nouns. The fact that it is different for this pronoun could be thought of as irregular. However, natural is not the same as excusable.

    Another travesty that I am annoyed by is the use of ‘shined’ when one means ‘shone’ as in; “The moon shone brightly.” This is beyond disgusting. ‘To shine’ is not a regular verb; it is one of the beautiful ones!

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    1. I know what you mean! A student regaled me with “teached” the other day. I told her I was a teacher but I never “teached” anything in my life.

      I also really enjoy seeing “could of been” instead of “could have been.”

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  6. I was extremely brow-beaten by my parents, where part of the justification of this attack on my psyche was the assertion, “You can’t even speak properly!”. My parents are extreme right-wingers, who identified speaking the Queen’s English with being civilized. In effect, what they were saying to me was, “We don’t think you are civilized or acceptable according to right-wing ideas.” Instead, they codified their feelings in terms of my alleged inability to speak.

    I didn’t understand the meaning of their accusation at the time, but on reflection it seemed probable to me that colonial subjects who were non-English speakers were attacked in precisely this way as a means to deny them political power via liberation from British, colonial rule.

    It was also apparent that my parents wanted to deny me my own power to make decisions for myself, despite the fact that I had already claimed that right, but had been set back by workplace bullying. My health had suffered a devastating beating.

    One of the stranger psychological effects I have experienced as a result of dealing with my parents and other right-wingers online is the sense that although I’ve spoken I haven’t really said anything. They would pick apart your grammar or your tone in order to assert that you had said nothing at all.

    At times, this attitude to me made me feel I was going mad, until I finally figured out that is was a political strategy, designed to make you feel as if you were going mad.

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    1. Unfortunately, this is a very very common strategy of abuse and domination. I recognize it only too well.

      “One of the stranger psychological effects I have experienced as a result of dealing with my parents and other right-wingers online is the sense that although I’ve spoken I haven’t really said anything. They would pick apart your grammar or your tone in order to assert that you had said nothing at all.”

      – I have very very similar experiences. 😦

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      1. The advantage I had was in knowing that I had already accumulated enough knowledge and had a fearsome enough intelligence for people to feel that using those tactics against me was warranted.

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          1. I was not young when they did this to me. I was in my my late twenties and had returned to my parents’ house to recover from an extreme collapse of my digestive system. That had been as a result of workplace bullying. I already had a bachelor’s degree in Arts. I was cottoning on to the need to fight as if my life depended on it. I was tired of being pushed around. I had so much in my character structure that was adapted to an entirely different set of cultural expectations.

            And, yes, it did feel deadly even then. It felt like my parents wanted to erase me and start again. Or, they were giving me a choice: “Either we erase you, or you erase us.”

            This is why a lot of my blog writing focuses on the issue of Superego, and why I have a rather nuanced perspective on the topic.

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            1. “And, yes, it did feel deadly even then. It felt like my parents wanted to erase me and start again. Or, they were giving me a choice: “Either we erase you, or you erase us.””

              – Yes, that’s exactly how it feels to such people. Their entire existence is bound with the possibility to cannibalize the child’s life in perpetuity.

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              1. That is why, by the end of writing my thesis, whereby I took sides against my original Rhodesian identity, I felt like I was going mad. It was very weird — a kind of “limit experience”, where I felt really proud of myself for saying what had to be said, against a lot of opposition that was still resonating in my head.

                My memoir was a similar project — a strike for freedom against the odds, because of what was fighting inside me.

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  7. I think the problem is broader than spelling. Spelling is just a nice example demonstrating that sometimes the leftist ideas are taken too far. I find any attempts to pass degrading everything to some lowest common denominator as “progressive”, and standing up to these attempts as “elitist” or “classist” to be extremely harmful first of all to the progressive cause itself. Why the heck would one need weak and uneducated progressive movement? Or is all that talk about “elitism” just BS PR, “progressive” elites colluding with what is weak in people?
    The real progressive should stand for access to high-quality education for all, not for pretending that poor quality education is actually OK, so everyone could feel good.

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    1. I agree completely. People who lack the energy or the interest to engage in any valuable activism maintain their progressive persona by embracing such pseudo-causes. It feeds their self-righteousness while requiring no investment of time or effort. 

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    2. Yup, we science educators hear similar rhetoric all the time about math.

      “So what if the students can’t do high school math correctly? There’s nothing great about the ability to do math. Let us still teach them XXX (insert a really difficult science/engineering topic which you would _not_ get if you don’t understand much math.)”

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  8. My experience is that ESL immigrants are more attentive to spelling than native speakers. The main problem I see is the minor one of East Asian ESL immigrants forgetting articles. They don’t use them in their native languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), so it doesn’t occur to them to use them in English.

    Having a mistake pointed out is an opportunity to improve. I think that the classist thing is to ignore the content solely because the presentation has spelling or grammar errors. It is better to think clearly and make mistakes than to have perfect spelling and lack thought.

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