De ritingz on de wal (Editorial)

Pop culture promoting unintelligible misspellings bodes ill for the future workforce

My daughter was recently invited to be a pen pal. It seemed like a worthwhile endeavour, but instead of an opportunity for her growth, it became an eye-opener for myself. And a warning for HR professionals about the next generation.

As the child of two editors it’s not surprising my daughter has taken to the written word at a young age, and the offer of correspondence from a distant pre-teen relative in England seemed a good opportunity to develop her writing skills.

I wasn’t expecting some exchange on the level of Gandhi and Tolstoy, but when the first letter arrived its sentences were surprisingly disappointing. It wasn’t so much the subject matter but the pride taken in obscuring words by attempting to represent each syllable with a similar sounding one or an alternative spelling. And lots of numbers 4u2.

“Wots nu? Eye em sendin a foto of mi cellf.” After that it got a bit hard to make out, but we think there was some mention of the writer’s name near the end. Not to judge an entire global generation of young communicators by one garbled note from abroad, but trouble seems on the horizon.

With news reports bemoaning dropping language skills from Britain to Japan, this English (if you can identify it as such) missive shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But the antiquated ideal of diligently crafted letters, written by candlelight and fountain pen, making their way across the Atlantic dies hard.

Perhaps it’s unfair to view such attempts at reworking the written word as an example of the modern world discarding the value of carefully composed letters or of laziness. A lot of work must have gone into rendering that letter unreadable. Rather the problem seems to be that pop culture is promoting unintelligible misspellings as “communication chic.”

When e-mail first hit the scene, it looked like the medium would develop its own lingo, but professional business writing won out and users are now careful to review and spell-check instead of dash-off-the-top-of-your-head, misspell and send.

Text-messaging changed that. Characters are at a premium. Short, little communication bursts are in use and Merriam-Webster had best beware.

Poor spelling is indeed a big part of pop culture. It started with U2 and Boyz II Men and pretty soon every hip hop and rap artist became a series of numbers, letters and punctuation marks, and every heavy metal act had a “Z” and an umlaut. Prince even became a hieroglyphic. When I was an adolescent Led Zeppelin were the only poor spellers, and that was because of a typo, not a plan. The bigger question was how to pronounce “Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

What does this mean for HR professionals? Likely, a lot of future training and development dollars on teaching written communication skills to new hires.

Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” And while his words couldn’t resonate more strongly, even McLuhan can be forgiven if he at least expected the message to use recognizable characters.

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