The NY Times covers a situation where the actor John Cusack runs into a scolding from some self appointed grammar cops for what he posted through Twitter. Apparently Cusack misspells a number of words, including the word “breakfast” as “breakfasy” and the word “hypocrite” as “hippocrit.” The first misspelling seems to be nothing more than an easily forgiven typo, but the second one appears to be more of an ignorance of the spelling of this unusual word. Considering the unusual spelling conventions behind this word, I consider it equally forgivable.
What the grammar cops miss is that Cusack is writing in an informal setting and not paying much attention to the way he spells or types. This lack of sensitivity to the context of the writing is a common shortcoming of those overly concerned with correctness in writing. In their minds, nearly all situations seem to call for Standard Written English.
But their lack of sense for the context does not make Cusack and others correct by default. Writing reveals something more about us that we are often unaware of. As long as the language exists in a written format, it is going to carry signs of the education level of the writer that are not present in the speech. Cusack has probably called countless people hypocrites, but never created much laughter when speaking the word. Most well mannered people would probably let Cusack’s error go without a comment, but they would silently take note of it and assess his intelligence.
What Cusack is missing is that his spelling and typing are part of his unintentional message even when he considers himself to be in an informal setting. Spelling and typing mistakes stand out in a text culture, especially when they appear to be either unintentional or committed out of ignorance. Colloquial language is marked by familiarity in tone and diction, but that familiarity is not extended to orthography when the audience includes perfect strangers.