Tag: spelling

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.

Spelling out my issues with spelling

I have had enough comments about my spelling error to warrant an explanation on my thoughts and philosophy on spelling. You may or may not agree with me, but at least from here on out, we will all be on the same page. (I just realized that “on the same page” may not be an appropriate phrase, given what is going on with Congressional pages recently, but I trust you know what I mean.)

1. It’s all about the content

I am all about content. I’m not a huge fan of word processors because they distract people with all kinds of formatting and other nonsense. The focus becomes look and feel, and not content which is bad. When it comes to writing, I am the same way. I focus on content. Also, because I write as much as I do, and because I, like everyone else have limited amounts of time, I write fast and I willingly trade accuracy for speed. In other words, if making a few spelling errors allows me to write faster, then I will write faster and make the errors.

2. Pareto’s Principle

But why do I make the errors to begin with? Spelling should be second nature, something we learned in grammar school, right? Let me state for the record that I have always thought that teaching spelling in school is the dumbest thing in the world and a colossal waste of time. For that reason, it was the subject that I hated the most of all the subjects I took (with the possible exception of economics). I put very little effort into memorizing lists of words and their proper spellings because I realized that when I came to a word that I wasn’t sure about, I could always look up the spelling in the dictionary. (Why don’t I look them up in the dictionary, you ask? See #1 above.)

Spelling is too arbitrary for me. There are no hard and fast rules, and plenty of exceptions. It’s too complicated and I decided a long, long time ago that I wasn’t going to put effort into it. While I didn’t realize this back in grammar school, I was applying a variant of what is known at the Pareto Principle (the 80-20 rule) to spelling. (I spent 20% of my time on spelling, hoping to get 80% of the words spelled correctly. Actually, I probably spend far less than this, but you get the idea.)

3. Rote memorization vs. critical thinking

Word processors and even some text editors now check spelling as you type. When I use these tools, my spelling is better and I rely on them for correctness. Thus on my story manuscripts, email message, documentation (at work), correspondence, etc., spelling errors are almost non-existent. The reason they appear in my blog is that I use LiveJournal to type in my blog entries, rather than a third party tool. Since LJ doesn’t check spelling as you type, and since checking the spelling involves an extra step, I tend to skip that step (see #1 above).

One could argue that this is a slippery slope. If we rely too much on technology our brains could end up worse off. Why learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide when you can use a calculator to get the answer? To this I would say that there is a significant difference between spelling and arithmetic. Spelling is completely arbitrary, follows few rules, and memorizing it is nothing more than an exercise in busy-work. Arithmetic, on the other hand, is universal, has a specific, simple set of rules, and is the basis for logic and critical thinking involved in higher mathematics (induction, for instance). Thus, while I rarely put effort into my spelling and when possible, allow word processors and text editors to correct spelling for me, I am the opposite with arithmetic. On any given day, a look at my desk at work will reveal pages of handwritten calculations, graphs, numbers. I like doing the math by hand (without a calculator) because I feel that it helps to sharpen by brain. It adds value. Spelling does not.


These reasons may not satisfy anyone, but they satisfy me. (Certainly, they wouldn’t satisfy my grammar school teachers.) I try not to be hypocritical, when, on those rare occasions I find a spelling error in someone else’s writing. Usually I ignore it and focus on the content of what was written. Some people will argue that my poor spelling is due to the fact that I am lazy. I say it’s due to the fact that I just don’t care. If I convey my meaning I am happy, and besides, my spelling is correct when it counts. It certainly doesn’t count in an online journal. In this day and age, spelling has no practical educational value. Whether or not educators will admit it, we learn to spell when we learn to read. Rummaging through lists of spelling words each week improves our spelling in diminishing returns compared to what our spelling would be if we didn’t go through those lists. It is an exercise in rote memorization that adds little or no value to our education. Compare that to arithmetic, which provides the foundation for logic and reasoning. Do spelling errors annoy people? Yes, they certainly do, although I challenge anyone to give a good explanation as to why they feel annoyed by spelling errors? Is it because you are annoyed that the person didn’t take the time to learn something meaningless? They they are not following the rules? Certainly errors in spelling don’t annoy people as much as errors in arithmetic. Dollars to donuts you will be much more upset upon receiving your receipt from the grocery store if you were over-charged for your sirloin, then if the word “sirloin” is misspelled.