Getting the words right
Future Thinking in clean-living Britain

When my student magazine, a godawful piece of rubbish which I'm not sure why I actually do write for, underwent a recent editorial revamp and reshuffle, the new editor made a point at the meeting of outlining the magazine's new policy for writing - that the writing should be as grammatical, clear and basically typographically CORRECT as possible. Words should be spelt 'right', so once again, bow down, one assumes, to Oxford, and punctuation marks should be limited to one.

As a dictum it raised instant questions. Why? Well, to make the magazine look, well, you know, PROFFESSIONAL. To make it sleek, clean, unmuddies and unmuddled. Supposedly free from the human error of the printing press, its new digital-age production is a student-level attempt at the same goal that everyone from advertisers to governments to technology companies have - to push a product that is free of blemishes, CLEAN, and so it disuades clutter and banishes anything more than the simplest, the most banal and basic of reading/reader responses.

It's understandable, and responding to it entails more than just "what's 'CORRECT' language anyway?" (more than just a can of worms, that particular question opens up a veritable six-pack of the wriggly things). The key aspects to tackling the issues of clean production are how those problems, and they are problems, are there, and what exactly they are. A standard is a standard is a standard, and for what one writer is the emotional safety net of an a,b,c learned since schooldays will be to another a constant reminder of grammatical constraint, to wit, being shit at spelling. Why shouldn't one use what one feels comfortable with? This week I found out how 'weird' is really spelt - 'ei' not 'ie'. Okay, simple and small enough. Except that word is, for various reasons, one I tend to use a lot, and I'm used to MY spelling, and now every time I write it, with a pena nd paper, I have to stop. Barrier. Scribble. Change. Alter. DISTORT. At a subtle level, the writer is affected, and thus anything that comes AFTER that is inherently affected also. Essentially, my original intentions have been distorted, by something as light as a snowflake but nonetheless THERE, and not by something natural or real, that would bring something of the world to the work, but by something unreal and totally artificial, i.e. (dumb as this sounds) the standard of writing, of grammatical representation; the work of one human being has been distorted by infringement of one human attempt (the English dictionary) at definign what grammar is and should be.

The concept of standard, of words actually having a way of being spelt either rightly or wrongly, is of course not a new thing, and it involves the entire history of language and languages themselves, from the cavemen and Egyptians' use of visuals and heiroglyphics, through to certain historical polticians' choices of 'the true language to be taught', and the printing press and, etc etc...

But standard is now enforced, not even by us as such, by people, but by technology, by machines. In the 80's, the anecdote about William Gibson typing up 'Neuromancer' not on a word processor but an ancient, rusty 50's typewriter (like, with ribbons and everything!) was trotted out like a joke. Now it seems to most people like a disgusting oxymoron deserving of some near-contempt, because of the machine-led, current technological culture, where things are experienced first virtually, then in real life second, if atall - for instance, where computer games serve as explicit and genuine pornography for pre-teens who don't, perhaps now can't ever, actually have a fully developed sense of what sexualities mean or are.

Even your most basic spellcheckers hover there, dotted all over the screen, a prison warden in an odeological lexocographical jailcell. "You better not have any other ideas about spelling - you better conformn to what we've given you - or else!" Which remains ridiculously stupid when it fails even to recognise most people's surnames. As humorous as such incongruities may occassionally appear, the more advanced spellchecking systems, those that correct (that alter, that distort) the writing ALMOST AS IT IS BEING WRITTEN, are more worrying. We know that Tony Blair is pushing, or bragging about pushing, a programme whereby everyone in Britain has access to advanced Information Technology, and that his dream, if Bill Gates' was to have a PC in every home, is to have the internet in every room - especially schoolrooms. What if a basic component of this IT package were to be an advanced spellchecker? Already, the computer, the machine, our very own (potential) Frankenstein's monster, is stopping the human and causing them to 'correct'. THEM telling US to 'correct'! How long would it be for everyone indoctrinated in the process from, say, seven years old to become thus programmed themselves, to accept a process of grammar instilled at some automatic level? And who would write the programme that tells the computer that tells the human, unconsciously, what spelling is correct or incorrect?

Which words will be right? And which will be wrong?

©David O. MacGowan 2000