Spelling Snobs

Why is it that people who can spell really well so often lord it over those of us who make spelling mistakes? I make frequent spelling errors. Many are masked by dictionaries, Alexa (if I am feeling lazy) and spell-checkers. Others are caused by auto-correct, and an acknowledged willingness to trade accuracy for speed when typing–also know as the “typo.”

We seem to put a high value on accurate spelling, even though our meaning and intent is often no less diminished when we make a mistake. A misspelled word, is not, for instance, like a bad line of code that will stop a program from running, or compiling. We see it, note it, recognize it for what it is, and move on, with a more or less clear understanding of the intent. And yet it has been my experience that Very Good Spellers scorn with contumely those of us whose memories for combinations of letters are not as refined as their own.

It would be one thing if spelling involved something beyond strict memorization. If, for instance, there was a concrete set of rules to follow, then I could see chalking poor spelling up to laziness. But spelling is the epitome of the rule-breaker. “I before E except after C or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.” I see a spelling “rule” like that and I am reminded of drug commercials and the long list of contraindications that Saturday Night Live parodied so well with “Happy Fun Ball”

Good spellers have good memories for long strings of letters. People who are good at trivia (another annoying group lording it over the rest of us) have good memories for random facts. It’s amusing how we celebrate both. Jeopardy has been going strong now for 37 years–a show that puts a spotlight on trick memories. Spelling bees, according to Wikipedia, have been around since at least 1808, when attempts were being made to standardize spelling. (When you are attempting to standardize something, regardless of what it is, you’ve already lost the war.) A spelling be is nothing more than a very specific type of trivia game.

I am well aware of my faults when it comes to spelling. Plenty of people have been good enough to call them to my attention ever since I first learned to spell, and continuing right down to this very day. Nothing is more annoying than writing what I think of as a very good piece, and the first feedback has nothing to do with the content, but the spelling: “There in the third paragraph, you misspelled, ‘their.'” Good spellers and snobs are notorious for pointing out the felonies of “there” vs. “their” vs. “they’re” to say nothing of “your” vs. “you’re” and “it’s” vs “its.” (“To” instead of “too” is just a misdemeanor.) The utter ridiculousness of spelling can be summed up by a conundrum my grandfather used to try to get me to ask my grade-school teachers.

“Ask ’em how to write, ‘There are three to’s in the English language.”

What is it about a misspelled word that drives these people batty? When I’m not sure about how to spell a word, I do what most people do and pick a completely different word to misspell. If it is really important, I crack open Merriam-Webster and look it up. “Oh, that’s how you spell ‘bureacracy.’ Five minutes later, I’ve forgotten how to spell it. So what? Does spelling really matter in an email or text message when most of the messages I see look like, “idk. brb. thx.” I’m sus.

I’m not convinced schools teach kids how to use dictionaries anymore. At least, I’ve never seen one of my kids open a dictionary. I’m not sure they know what a dictionary is. And guide-words? Forget it!

Good spelling shows attention to detail? Phew! I’ve been told that I have a pretty good attention when detail is concerned. Attention to detail has nothing to do with good spelling. It seems to me that the mental faculties involved in spelling–recall, pattern matching, separation of sight and sound, hearing–can all vary based on how an individual’s brain is wired. I will never be able to spell erythromycin without looking it up. On the other hand, I’ve memorized the lyrics to more than 160 Bing Crosby songs. Different wiring.

I think Ben Franklin was on to something when he proposed all words be spelled phonetically. We fool ourselves into thinking there is a right way and wrong way to spell a word, but there are too many exceptions in the dictionary to make that argument. Wikipedia lists a couple hundred of them for English alone.

Perhaps that is the crux of it. Spelling, like trivia, can be boiled down to something that is right or wrong, something beyond reproach or debate. Giving an opinion on a piece of writing can be a challenge. You have to think about what is there on the page. You have to interpret and make judgments, and comparisons. With a misspelled word, you don’t need to do any of that. It’s either right or wrong (unless I write “cancelled” which, according to Merriam-Webster, is just as valid as “canceled.”) Who’s the lazy one now?

If variety is the spice of life, than Mark Twain said it best when it comes to spelling:

I don’t see any use in having a uniform and arbitrary way of spelling words. We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike. Sameness is tiresome; variety is pleasing. I have a correspondent whose letters are always a refreshment to me, there is such a breezy unfettered originality about his orthography. He always spells Kow with a large K. Now that is just as good as to spell it with a small one. It is better. It gives the imagination a broader field, a wider scope. It suggests to the mind a grand, vague, impressive new kind of a cow

He said that while giving a speech at a “spelling match” in Hartford, Connecticut way back on May 12, 1875.

One comment

  1. My wiring sees spelling errors. I used to point them out. Today, I remember that teaching a pig to sing irritates both the teacher and the pig. So, now I see them, but don’t point them out.


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