Today in studies that claim the Internet is ruining our lives, the BBC informs us that auto-correct and spellcheckers have turned us into a bunch of illiterate idiots. But our spelling has been degrading for much longer than iPhone auto-correct has been around. In a survey of more than 2,000 British people, one third of the participants could not spell definitely and two-thirds could not spell separate. While that does sound scary, the survey doesn't indicate whether spelling is rising or falling in Britannia. (Our guess: you would have found the same results 10 years ago, better spellers 50 years ago, and much worse spellers 100 years ago.) But the results have led the group that commissioned the study, the Mencap's Spellathon Championships, to an headline-grabbing conclusion: Auto-correct is making us stupid.
"With over two-thirds of Britons now having to rely on spell-check, we are heading towards an auto-correct generation," Mencap CEO Mark Goldring told the BBC. "This survey has highlighted that many Britons have a false impression about their spelling ability," he continues. This may be true, but it is hardly a sudden development. Bad spelling has plagued typists since at least as long as computer spell-check has existed. Back in 2009, writing for The New Yorker Thessaly La-Force highlighted a 20-year study which that found typists had gotten worse at spelling. The study looked at the most common errors in undergraduate papers, finding the prevalence of word screw-ups, rather than grammar errors, had increased between 1988 and 2008. "The use of the wrong word jumped three spots to become the most common error in students’ papers; misspelling, which didn’t even place in the top twenty in 1988, jumped to number five," explains La Force. "The first spell-checkers were developed in the nineteen-seventies, but I’m guessing that spell-check became ubiquitous in the nineties, with the dominance of Microsoft Word and more reasonably priced personal computers," she continues. Following up with that trend, a 2005 study found we have become ever-reliant on this technology, with spellers making more mistakes with spell-check turned on, than off. Conclusion: Computer spell-check, an invention of the 1970s has been making us worse at spelling for at least 25 years.
And, in recent years, spell check has only gotten more ubiquitous. Not only do we find it on our word processing programs, but it's in Facebook, chat, email and our phones. And all of that has existed for awhile. Even dumbphones had a form of spell check via T9 or predictive text, which guesses words as a user types, meaning one does not have to know the exact spelling of definitely to definitely get it right in a message. Even better than spell check, search engines have auto-complete, which guesses what a user might be trying to enter. One can get very far on that without knowing how to spell.
Of course, while our spelling gets worse, there are other linguistic benefits. Like: We create new words at a faster pace. And, a 2009 study of Sanford students argued we are writing more in general and thus more literate. So maybe dumbing down isn't exactly the right word. Though, that's how Goldring seems to think of it, as he thinks this will translate to how we compose our CVs, something that one puts more care into than a text-message. "Today's tough economic climate means that poor spelling on a CV is fatal, as it says that an individual cannot produce work to a given standard, no matter how highly qualified they might be," he told the BBC.