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Bad Language in the Workplace (or Why Bill Gates Sux)

Valerie Poulin

snaring the odd typo in my morning paper is something of a daily ritual for me and a photo caption in the Star identified a person in the "centre" of a photo caused me to smirk into my cereal bowl. Spelling gaffes were the easiest to spot.

In no time, however, I began to second-guess my spelling know-how . . . what if "centre" no longer meant facility? What if Toronto was no longer the "center" of the universe? I soon discovered that I was not alone in my inability to remember which what went where.

As I made my way through the day, words that once seemed natural and complacent thumped me at every turn, from the novel I was reading to our corporate communications intranet site at work. Even my son's school work was loaded with misspelled words. I looked around my world, and noticed a horrifying tendency. The strides we have made in establishing Canadian English are being reversed. And I think we can blame Bill Gates for this backslide.

For example, the book I was reading, about prairie life in Canada, written by a Saskatchewan-based writer and published by a Canadian imprint, was littered with American spelling and with its obligatory thanks to Canadian Council for the Arts for financial assistance, I wondered if the Council could reclaim its handouts from publishers unable to preserve our language.

If asked, these publishers would probably say they are catering to a global audience and that means using American spelling. It is more likely, however, that there are fewer editors with larger workloads working alongside proofreaders relying too heavily on spell-checkers. I wondered if most Canadians even recognize the difference.

In everyday life, words in their American forms are hurled at consumers from every angle. They appear in popular magazines, on Web sites, and in video games. They are printed on our dashboards. We find them on candy wrappers and toy packaging, on greeting cards, CD liner notes, on shampoo bottles and hair colouring products. We see them in movie titles, job ads, comic strips. They are printed on storefront signs and lawn signs advertising home renovations. Even our television program listings print U.S. versions, including StarWeek and Bell Express Vu.

There are, in fact, only a handful of words that are spelled differently, but those few words help distinguish us from our British roots and our American neighbours. It is a matter of Canadian independence.

At work, we agree to accept terms of the software's license agreement then customize toolbars. We delete email messages containing off-color humor, apologize for missing lunch dates and are overjoyed when meetings are canceled.

It's tricky business, this business of keeping these matters straight. Our government prefers British "ise", business prefers its American cousin "ize" and most workers simply do not share my overwrought concern. So, just as it may seem a stretch to blame the proliferation of spelling errors on software, it does seem extraordinary that the geniuses at Microsoft stepped away from their Nerf football game long enough to program a handful of synonyms for sexual climax, but are largely unable to distinguish between UK and Canadian spellings.

Then again, even the Canadian Oxford Dictionary does little to identify a preferred style versus correct use listing American, Canadian, and British spellings, but never identifies which is which.


Like my elevated expectation of the publishing industry, I hold an equally tall expectation of our public school system. It's disheartening to someone like me to see the lack of respect for our language where it should be encouraged. Our school's monthly newsletter filled with loathsome grammar that can only be described as embarrassing, but not any more so than my son's homework assignments. What's more, his grade one teacher regularly assigns spelling assignments that she's yanked off the Internet, replete with missing u's and l's, as in color and traveling. I pencil in corrections, but I don't suppose this gains me any favour.

Notes at the top of these assignments explain that practice is necessary for good spelling habits. Apparently, practise is no longer important.

Above and beyond that, the class recently worked through a capitalization exercise that included these two sentences: "The country to the north of us is canada." and "We celebrate washington's birthday in February."

I gather national identity is of no importance either.


I sit pondering this when something makes me reconsider my overly pedantic perspective: An ad for a workshop run by columnist Linwood Barclay, whom I professionally adore, lists the workshop as "Writing with Satire and Humor." I figure if humor is good enough for Linwood, it is good enough for me. Besides, I can't parse a sentence worth a damn.

Valerie Poulin, a reformed technical writer and a highly-functioning poet, lives and nitpicks in Pickering, Ontario.

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