Language is based on agreed interpretations; nothing else. If we all agree that “aarple” means “to nod one’s head vigourously in agreement,” then that is what it will mean to us. Which is why language is always evolving, with text-speak, modern catchphrases, and foreign words changing the landscape all the time.
In addition, we’ve all seen those email / facebook forwards which demonstrate the brain’s ability to read words that are basically nonsense: Can you udresntnad tihs, for emxpale? Oar evan this won? The brain is clever, which is why the odd spelling or grammar mistake won’t prevent comprehension.
But I’m sorry, I can’t help it. I was raised to be a perfectionist on language, and these things matter to me. When I read something with spelling errors or laziness, it pulls me up short. It distracts me from the story, it makes me question the person who wrote it or the publication which let it go by. I don’t mean the odd typo; we all make those and however meticulously you proofread, they are elusive little fellows which sneak under the radar. I also don’t mean the UK/US English niggles I’ve grumbled about here before – once I recognise the origin of the writing, I would no more correct someone’s US English to UK than I would “correct” their French to English spellings. And I am aware that these things come more easily to some people than others.
I’m refering to things which make it clear that the writer never bothered to learn the nuts and bolts of their own language, couldn’t care less where an apostrophe goes or that “there” and “their” mean totally different things.
When I was in school, all exams including a “SPAG” mark, even in non-language subjects. If your spelling, punctuation and grammar were less than perfect, you could lose up to maybe 5% of the total mark, even if you had made yourself understood. These days, some education systems and educators are leaning in favour of “understanding” being all that matters, and certainly that is the principal purpose of language. But our use of language also says a lot about us, and people are listening to that too.
Now, if it were just me who thought like this, spelling wouldn’t matter. I could justifiably be ignored. But it’s not just me. There is a great body of us, and many of the nitpickers are in positions of power and influence. Between us, we could make the difference between a newspaper being a best-seller and a flop, we can elect or defeat politicians and, on a more personal level, we can reject job applicants on the basis of mistakes in their covering letter and novel submissions because we scanned the first page and found it too frustrating to continue.
Like so many things, the details of language are easiest to learn in school, and stick best when learnt at a young age. Even if they don’t really matter at that stage, we need to make them appear to, so that when they really do, they come as second nature.