Category Archives: Spelling

How pervasive is neography, really?

The pundits within us tend to think that spelling has, wholesale, gone down the toilet. Especially on the Internet, nobody can seem to spell correctly. But is that really the case? Let’s not be so dramatic.

Mark Sebba has pointed out a distinction between regulated and unregulated communication spaces, and this continuum is useful for determining the extent to which orthography tends to be flouted in the real world. At one pole, we have printed books, which are heavily edited, in terms of both style and subject matter. At the other end are the completely unregulated spaces, of which graffiti is the most representative. As you can imagine, online social networks tend to fall toward the unregulated end of the spectrum (though we could argue that a service like Twitter is less regulated than Facebook, and that both are much less regulated than LinkedIn).

I think it’s important to point out that the level of regularity of each of these spaces fluxes with each individual interaction. For example, I don’t tweet to strangers in the same way I tweet to friends, and I might take neographic shortcuts in an email to a family member that I wouldn’t to a professor. As we can see, communicative spaces are regulated in terms of social norms and expectations just as much as they are by the characteristics inherent in the platform, such as its history and brand.

So, if you only hang out on Yahoo! Answers, you may well come to the conclusion that the spelling you learned in grade school is dead. But crack open a book every once in a while, and you’ll be able to appreciate that that isn’t the case.

Word-compounding strategies as visual metaphor

I’ve written before about visual metaphor in writing—the idea that ALL CAPS should be interpreted as shouting (i.e., big letters imply big voice)—and here is another example.

When we create compound words in English, we have three strategies to write them. Compound words can be written with a space between the two words, such as in “real estate”; they can be written with a hyphen, such as in “well-being”; and they can be written together, such as in “doorbell.” These are referred to as open, hyphenated and closed, respectively.

Jelly + Fish = Jellyfish

How do we decide which strategy we use in compounding a word? At first, it seems random. After all, we can find the same word compounded in multiple ways, depending on the writer. Take “well-being.” Google returns over 13 million results for “wellbeing,” over 2 billion results for “well-being” and over 22 million results for “well being.” Granted, the hyphenated version is most common, but the other versions are still quite pervasive.

In some cases, it’s more clear-cut. For example, there’s a need to differentiate “black bird” from “blackbird” and “black board” from “blackboard.” Granted, these examples have different stress patterns and are arguably quite different; words like “black board” are two non-compound words (an adjective plus a noun), whereas “blackboard” is a single, compound word.

It seems to me that the idea of visual metaphor may be behind our word-compounding strategy choices. I propose that words (at least nouns) written with a space are seen as most disconnected (by which I mean that the two compounding elements are perceived as having little to do with each other) or novel, whereas words written together as seen as most cohesive, and words written with a hyphen are somewhere in between. Things may be written as two words when they are new concepts, then make their way to hyphenation and finally one-wordedness as they become more widespread.

I say this because I don’t believe there are any single, compound words whose meaning would change if you compound them using a different strategy. (noting, as i mentioned previously, that some compound words actually become two separate words when written with a space; these cases wouldn’t figure into this scenario.)

Consider the evolution of the name “electronic mail,” which was used at the technology’s infancy, to “e-mail,” which was used until very recently, finally giving way to “email,” which seems to be today’s preference. (The truncation of the word “electronic” further demonstrates the technology’s growing pervasiveness.) And how about the word “net-work,” which was hyphenated in the 1800’s, an act that would be unthinkable today?

This is only a first musing on the concept, and there is, of course, much more analysis and consideration to be done to form a fuller picture.

Tim Likes this.

Pretty much everyone is a Facebook user these days, so it’s safe to assume that just about everyone knows what Liking is. Oh, I Like that photo. And that page. And that comment. I also like that message my friend sent me but unfortunately I can’t Like it (the best I can do right now is send them back a big, fat thumbs-up).

Facebook chose the name Like for this interaction because it describes possibly the most common of human sentiments: liking. It’s not as strong as favoriting, not as committal as recommending and much more human than +1ing. It’s just liking.

But the interesting thing is that Liking is not the same as liking. If they were the same, we wouldn’t have to distinguish them visually. (And when talking, we often quickly mutter “on Facebook” after the word Like, for want of such a distinction in speech.) The version with the lowercase L, of course, refers to the human emotion, while the version with the capital L refers to clicking a certain button. I’m not convinced that every Like is a like. Sometimes, for example, I might Like something as a quick way to say, “I saw this,” or, “I’m thinking about you.” But maybe there’s something in that click that tries to convince my brain that I actually do like that thing I just Liked. The idea is worth exploring.

In any case, evidently Facebook is the only one who doesn’t recognize this difference: Throughout the site, you’ll see that “So-and-so likes this,” rather than “So-and-so Likes this.” This means that we’ve created an orthographic convention that refers to a specific location, and that convention is followed everywhere in the world except that specific location. Which is really bizarre if you think about it.

Meanwhile, we can add an extra entry to the list of words whose meaning changes when the first letter is capitalized. This means, of course, that our cultural values are such that Liking things is right up there with Truth.