A few months ago, I registered for Dictionary.com’s “Word of the Day,” hoping to expand my vocabulary. This service delivers an obscure word to your inbox on a daily basis, complete with pronunciation guide, definition and example sentence. I now delete these e-mails on sight. This, for someone as obsessed with the English language as I am, would seem to be an abrupt deviation from normal patterns of behaviour. However, upon further reflection, I realized that it was not out of character at all: I had never before consciously attempted to learn new words. Instead, they had subtly incorporated themselves into my vocabulary as I read! This experience highlights a misconception which has grasped our collective consciousness: the belief that technology can provide a “shortcut” to literacy. The ability to spell is now considered to be worthless in a society dependent on spell-check. Learning the rules of English grammar is considered a colossal waste of time when Word and other computer programs are there to suggest appropriate word constructs. Instead of reading assigned novels, many of my classmates simply skim through a synopsis on Sparknotes or Wikipedia. While these technological crutches can temporarily disguise a lack of knowledge, they do not make up for the innumerable benefits that come from copious reading.
Having a large vocabulary is universally considered to be a sign of intelligence and a good education, prompting the recent wave of vocabulary-building websites and online quizzes. However, there is no substitute for the gradual assimilation of new words into your subconscious that results from repeated exposure to them in the context of a longer literary work. This type of learning eschews rote learning of definitions in favour of contextual familiarity, giving the reader multiple examples of correct usage and reinforcing patterns of language. Being able to rattle off a dictionary definition is useless when you are writing or speaking, and often leads to embarrassing misuses or grammatical faux pas. It also offers no practical assistance in distinguishing between subtly different synonyms. Words are freighted with implication that often eludes the formality of a dictionary. For example, the difference between “allegation” and “insinuation,” both of which were suggested by Microsoft Word as synonyms for “implication,”is immense, yet possibly unrecognizable by an inexperienced and technology-reliant writer. The English language is blessed with a vast and rich vocabulary, allowing unmatched precision of speech. Having the exact word at the forefront of your mind is absolutely invaluable, but is unattainable by any means except regular reading.
Regrettably, the intellectual laziness of modern students is not limited to their vocabulary-expansion techniques. The ability to spell is discounted by a generation with dictionaries on their phones and a word processor for every occasion. However, ignoring the spelling of words and relying on a squiggly red line to point out errors robs English-speakers of the ability to fully understand the roots of their language. English is a language of borrowing: it incorporates Greek and Latin roots, steals enthusiastically from German, and modifies French words to suit its fancy. Incorrectly spelling “parasol” as “parasoul”allows the writer to completely skim over the Gallic roots of the word and its reference to the Sun. If the word were spelled correctly, however, the writer would be able to guess at the meaning of the word without consulting a mobile dictionary! Examples such as this are abundant and varied. Regardless of the language of origin of any word, its correct spelling affords a full appreciation of the plentiful cultural roots of English words, and hints at their meanings and interrelationships.
A final deleterious work-avoidance tactic is the tendency of students to forgo assigned reading in favour of online summaries. Although many websites offer detailed plot overviews and even character analyses, this shortcut robs readers of the opportunity to bask in any given writer’s prose. Part of the joy of reading is the joy of language: Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic subject matter is accentuated by his sparse, almost frigid writing, while David Foster Wallace’s mix of conversational and erudite language perfectly mirrors the intra- and interpersonal conflict of his characters. Summaries strip the reading experience of its indulgence, giving a bare-bones framework without any embellishments and therefore without emotional payoff. It’s no small wonder that many students hate their English class, when they are unwittingly avoiding the best part of literary analysis: the literature itself!
There is no doubt that the rapid-fire pace of modern life creates immense demands on students, leading them into the temptation of Sparknotes and spell-check. However, by forgoing the time-consuming nature of reading in favour of technological shortcuts, students of the English language rob themselves of both enjoyment and the understanding that can come only from savouring a text. In an era of short attention spans, dedicating time and energy to a hefty novel or a piece of long-form journalism builds focus while providing a welcome escape from flashing screens and buzzing phones. The knowledge and skills that come from reading cannot be gained without effort. With English, as with everything else, hard work pays off.