Last month we spent some time trying to find the most misspelled word in the English language. After much effort by many contributors (to whom Dr. Boli is suitably grateful), we came to the tentative conclusion that the most misspelled word might be the contraction “you’re,” which is very often spelled “your.”
Our survey is slightly skewed, however, by the nature of the Internet itself. Though the Internet is indeed a democratic institution, where anyone can say anything, it is nevertheless true that a disproportionate amount of the writing on the Internet comes from either professional writers or amateurs who write regularly—bloggers, for instance. This is, in fact, merely a tautology: more of the writing on the Internet comes from people who write more. Such people, merely by exercising their writing ability so often, are bound to be better spellers than the general public, most of whom seldom write anything if they can help it.
Where, then, shall we find a good representation of the spelling habits of the general public?
The obvious answer is Craigslist. Here people who normally would not write if they could help it are motivated to write by greed or simple necessity. And we can take a general survey of Craigslist users’ spelling habits very easily, because the search engine is very simpleminded: it does not attempt to work around our misspellings the way Google does.
So we search for the common phrase “If you’re interested” in the Pittsburgh section of Craigslist, and here is what we find:
“if you’re interested”: 514 postings
“if your interested”: 625 postings
The misspelling is more frequent than the correct spelling in a representative sample of the general population. It should be noted, by the way, that Pittsburgh’s largest industry is higher education.
So are Pittsburghers unusually illiterate? Let us look at Mobile:
“if you’re interested”: 100 postings
“if your interested”: 185 postings
“if you’re interested”: 979 postings
“if your interested”: 1083 postings
“if you’re interested”: 268 postings
“if your interested”: 345 postings
“if you’re interested”: 478 postings
“if your interested”: 405 postings
“if you’re interested”: 925 postings
“if your interested”: 868 postings
“if you’re interested”: 770 postings
“if your interested”: 660 postings
It would seem, therefore, that the misspelling and the correct spelling of “you’re” are almost evenly balanced wherever we look, and that if anything the advantage goes to the misspelling.
Do we learn anything useful from this observation, other than that despair is a reasonable response to any detailed observation of human behavior?
Perhaps not. But the next time you talk to a lexicographer who insists on “description, not prescription,” and scoffs at the idea that the educated, rather than the general public, ought to set the standard for English usage, challenge him to revise his dictionary to include “your” as the correct spelling of the contraction for “you are,” with “you’re” as an obsolescent variant. See if he is true to his principles.