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They can't spell, and they can't edit, either

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

They can't spell, and they can't edit, either

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

I was reading a book by an established expert on computers the other day when I came across a phrase I couldn't figure out. It said something would be done "in CK."

Later, in another chapter, I found a couple of typically dumb spelling errors—typically dumb because I am getting used to seeing them, and because they are always inexcusable. That got me to thinking about "CK" again, but I still had no clue until I asked my wife what she thought it meant.

"Something the author was going to check out later," she said.

I had gotten lost in the technical side of the book and had missed the obvious meaning. Writers have done that sort of thing for centuries, leaving little notes to themselves to check something out before sending the manuscript off to the publisher.

But times have changed. Computers are used to write books and to publish books. It's an easy matter these days for an author to get everything "camera-ready," so that the printing plant can create the book from the author's own high-quality print files.

Creating books this way cuts the time, effort and expense of book publishing, but it has also introduced a new hazard for readers. We are increasingly becoming unwilling proofreaders.

The immediate issue, of course, is that books are supposed to be finished products, without notes from the author to check out a few facts that weren't available earlier, and without obvious misspellings. But the distressing reality is that we have entered a new era in which anyone who can write five words without fainting can automatically become an editor, a proofreader and even a publisher.

I see this trend in the online services every week. Anyone who uses a computer to read messages on CompuServe, Prodigy, America Online, GEnie or any other service will quickly discover that American literate life is being threatened by a strong undertow of ill-gotten spelling habits.

"I got to new games," a subscriber to one of these services wrote recently in a message area. "Ones like Falcan but much beter. The others a new similater that takes you on a submerine."

You could argue that the message I am quoting probably came from a teen-ager. What if it did? That would be no less depressing than an equally illiterate message from an adult. Correct spelling is an early habit—or it is not a habit at all.

And the book I was reading did not come from a teeny-bopper. I counted more than two dozen homophonic spelling errors—mistakes of words that sound alike, such as "bear" and "bare"—before deciding I had better things to do. Homophonic errors are never caught by spelling checkers, but they are easily spotted by real, live proofreaders.

Many computer enthusiasts know that there are better tools available in software programs to catch errors like these. The best of them check and double-check the context to weed out such embarrassing mistakes.

But they don't teach; they fix. We don't need to fix the illiterate gushings of this legion of self-appointed writers; we need to stop it. And the only way to do that is to rely on education instead of hallucination. We're fooling ourselves if we think software is going to turn an uneducated writer into a literary lion.

In this way, our schools are letting us down. Educators and teachers need to be reminded of the basic importance of spelling and grammar—even if that means putting "CK" up on the blackboard now and then.

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