Over the last couple of years I have been plagued with an unusual allergy, and to this day I have no idea what the cause might be. I have been tested for pollen, dust mites, particular types of food groups, aka as the most common allergens. What I wasn’t aware of is that there is another, possibly new, kind of allergy that is not caused by any of these usual suspects. It is not caused by something in the air you breathe, nor by something in the food you eat; it is in the language you speak. Apparently, the strong feelings people have about what they perceive as incorrect language usage can sometimes induce actual physical reactions, which can be described as chills, small tics, painful and watery eyes.
Steffen Madsen, a linguistics student from Denmark, coined the term ‘spellergy’ to refer to this ‘common disease’. In a talk he gave at the 52nd edition of the StuTS student conference in linguistics, Steffen explained that his interest in spellergies was triggered by a Danish Facebook group whose name can roughly be translated into “Forgetting to mark the present with the letter ‘r’ on verbs should be punished by caning” (being hit by a cane).
What led him to identifying spellergies was the realisation that “these guys in the group love to hate spelling errors. They will take photos of spelling errors from their everyday lives and then post them on the group wall and make fun of them because they want to react on them. To express their contempt for spelling errors. To express to the world how their sensitive eyes get swollen, red, watery, puffy, itchy from looking at these errors” (Madsen, personal conversation).
In English, most spellergies are induced by already established spelling mistakes, similar to not marking the present with ‘r’ in Danish, or the t/d mistake in Dutch. One such case, which, I admit, could be the cause of my mysterious allergy is the your/you’re confusion. And I am not the only one. There are numerous online communities and Facebook groups devoted to a common struggle against this annoying spelling mistake. The reason why these, and similar spelling mistakes have become so frowned upon – and this is an understatement! – is that they are hardly about spelling. Saying ‘Your wrong’ instead of ‘You’re wrong’ shows not only carelessness with spelling, but also a lack of some basic grammar knowledge, which makes such mistakes intolerable for many. Such reactions among language speakers, coupled with the ubiquity of the mistakes, have given these language mistakes the status of newly emerging usage problems. They are increasingly being featured on websites and fora offering language usage advice, such as the Grammar Girl website or the Wiki How. How long will it be before we see appropriate therapy advice prescribed in actual usage guides on the best ways to fight these new evil spellergens?