Spelling. I have always been good at it. I always scored high on my spelling tests, and I always wondered why it was so difficult for my classmates to do the same.
Although I knew I was good at spelling, I had not given this skill much thought, until one day, in eighth grade, my English teacher pulled me aside and told me about the spelling bee. “You should really think about it this year,” she told me.
I felt proud that day, because there’s no pat on the back quite as satisfying as when you’re told you’re good enough to be a contender. And although I never took the necessary steps to participate in the spelling bee that year, or ever, that little nudge from Mrs. Fayepete made me value this skill I possess more than ever. That little nudge also made me realize the importance of concise and correct written communication, whether it is in a professional setting, or not.
Since I chose writing as a passion and my ideal vocation, I use spelling the same way a blood spatter expert uses blood at a crime scene—I measure a person’s thoroughness, and sometimes, intelligence, based on how many errors they make, and what errors they make.
I’m a good speller, but I still have moments when I’m not sure how to spell a word. That’s when I use a dictionary to be sure I am spelling the word correctly, as well as using it properly, because being a good speller doesn’t necessarily mean that you just know how to spell an unusual word, like “paraphernalia,” but rather how to correctly spell and use the most common words in our vocabulary.
The words I’m talking about include, but are not limited to: there, their and they’re; now and know; then and than; its and it’s; to, too, and two; who, whose, who’s, and whom; bear and bare. The list goes on and on of words used every day that blend and blur, becoming troublesome and confusing at times. I don’t know anybody who can’t spell these words on their own correctly, but when they are used incorrectly, it counts as blatant spelling errors.
I believe that poor spelling should not exist these days. Rampant spelling mistakes are understandable if the world still functioned the same way it did before the availability of online dictionaries. I’m talking about when people had to physically reach for a bear of a dictionary and look up a word to know its correct spelling and usage.
Along with my knack for spelling, I also have a knack for historical timelines, so here is an informal timeline of the tools modern people have invented to ensure that spelling is uniform and correct, and the effects of those tools over time.
When Mrs. Fayepete pulled me aside to give me that pat on the back, people had to deal with heavy, bulky dictionaries to check on spelling and usage. Hence, it made sense to just write a word down the way you guessed it was spelled and then write it off as just a tiny mistake, easily overlooked, because it was just too much work to be a thorough perfectionist all the time.
Years later, automatic spell check came along, letting those who couldn’t spell breathe sighs of relief. But instead of helping improve people’s spelling, it seems to have made it worse. The problem with spell check, as many college professors have warned when a due date for a big paper was looming, is that it doesn’t catch usage errors. In the end, spelling may have improved with spell check, but without regard for correct usage.
Shortly after spell check, the World Wide Web came into play, and it soon became a household tool, used daily. Everything is online nowadays, including numerous dictionary and thesaurus Web sites, making it easier than ever to check on the spelling of a word before you type it and hit the button that sends it out to wherever it needs to go.
Today, in the age of the iPhone, when people have access to the Internet anywhere, and a number of applications that provide users with a dictionary one can operate with the touch of an index finger, spelling isn’t getting any better. In fact, it is getting worse.
And what makes it worse, is not necessarily that people are spelling things incorrectly in a different way than before, no. It’s the fact that the frequency and availability of places where such mistakes are showcased, and permitted, have multiplied. Blogs and comment sections on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, online product reviews and E-mails, these are all places where bad spelling and usage have found a place to grow and flourish, making people like me want to scream.
Having drawn this timeline that lists all of the changes humans have gone through to ensure proper spelling, one thing is clear: not everybody can be a spelling bee contender, just like not everyone can balance their checkbook without a calculator nearby.
I just wish that those who can’t be spelling contenders would rely heavily on online dictionaries to decrease, and eventually eliminate embarrassing errors.
Reem lives and writes about it. She thinks that's what writers do, anyway. If it's not, then she also has a degree in journalism under her belt, along with the titles of reporter, editor (in chief, even) and, of course, opinion columnist.
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4.3.10 @ 11:08a
Spelling is one of my pet issues, as well. I wince whenever I read a sentence with a blatant misuse of "to" when it should be "too", "it's" instead of "its", and an apostrophe that is placed before "s" instead of after "s". I suppose that the thought process that goes through my head--i.e., when deciding on "it's" vs. "its" I ask myself, "Do I need a possessive pronoun or a contraction of "it is" here?"--doesn't come naturally to everyone.
I've also discovered that my brain can spell but my fingers cannot, as sometimes the word I'm thinking in my head isn't what comes out of the keyboard. I am not one of those people who can happily continue to type and save corrections for the post-writing editing process. I feel compelled to self-edit my spelling as I go.
I love the spell-check and grammar-check features of my word-processing program. However, they are of limited use when writing science materials, because many scientific concepts require specific sentence constructs that baffle the grammar-check programming.
I also find myself constantly clicking "Add to Dictionary" for common scientific and technical terms that apparently are not supplied in my word processor's default dictionary, simply to get rid of all the squiggly red lines that permeate my manuscripts otherwise. On one hand, I can understand that a chemical name or structure would not be included in a general-purpose dictionary. On the other hand, I fail to understand why a term that appears in dictionaries commonly found in high school classrooms cannot also be included in the default dictionary.
katherine (aka clevertitania)
4.7.10 @ 9:52a
It's interesting that you specifically mention social media as the bastion of bad spelling, when that's where 95% of my bad spelling comes from. Oh, and for the record, I was a spelling bee champion. Unfortunately this was at a school too small to send kids to further competition. I'm also known, by family and friends, as the walking dictionary/thesaurus. But when I'm tweeting especially, I'm constantly mixing up their/they're. Typing faster than your brain works is the main culprit IMO.
4.7.10 @ 10:23a
Unfortunately, the root of the problem is that so many people can't be bothered to care that they are poor spellers, or lazy writers. The three e-mails that I received this morning, each of which contained an error: do I chalk those up to clumsy-fingered typos, or do these business professionals not care? Then there's the sign I spied at the gas station on Monday, warning patrons to keep their car stereo volume low because "exsexive" noise was prohibited by city regulations. Odds that this was a typo are slim-to-none, and I left the parking lot feeling lexiconically violated.
There's less shame in looking up a word than in spelling it inaccurately. I'd rather be a simple man who communicates well than a bon vivant who wears his ignorance on his sleeve.
4.7.10 @ 11:05a
I'm also known, by family and friends, as the walking dictionary/thesaurus.
Me, too. My mom could have a dictionary right beside her and still call me to spell something for her.
"Lexiconically violated"--Ah, a new Intrepid Media instant classic. Nicely played, Russ!
4.7.10 @ 3:13p
Especially with the ease of access to tools that are supposed to eliminate embarrassing errors nowadays, to let an email be sent out with errors, even if they're just typos, is an indication of how lazy the writer is, for sure.
As for errors made on Twitter, I see a lot of people make them, and the funny thing is, I see a lot of them tweet minutes after they make the mistake to sarcastically apologize for making the spelling/usage errors, apparently to those who pointed it out. This is a good sign, but the perpetrators are making fun of the sticklers, most of the time, not taking it seriously. Jim Carrey went on a tweeting tirade when he misspelled something and people were pointing it out and he just lost it... it was pretty funny, but I haven't seen him make any errors since, so maybe social media is helping us correct each other.
The note at the gas station would make me drive away with a very violent twitch, myself. Exsessive? My brain won't even let my fingers type that way without having to really think about it. Even exessive makes more sense than exsessive.
Also, in college, in my reporting class, the professor made us take a spelling quiz every Monday, and we would grade it as a group, then whatever words people keep missing would just show up the next week, and the next and the next, until we could all spell it correctly. I must say that as good as I was, I could not for the life of me spell exhilarating, or paraphernalia. To this day, I have to look these words up to be sure I spelled them right, which I did here, and I got them right on the first try... for the first time ever. WOW.
Anyway, point is, if you can't spell, you have to work harder. And let's face it, nowadays, it's just not that hard!
4.8.10 @ 3:50p
Painful in so many ways.
4.8.10 @ 5:20p
4.9.10 @ 7:59a
I'm sorry. I had to. Although maybe it'll open up another vein of discussion.
4.11.10 @ 7:39a
I actually entered the spelling bees, starting in fourth grade. I was Kentucky Education Association champion in 1977 and 1978. In the Scripps-Howard contests (the ones that could have sent me to the big bee in DC), I placed fourth statewide in 1977, and second statewide in 1978. Ask me how bitter I was at the time about the crap-ass pronouncer we had in '78 who led to my loss; go on, ask me.
I've loosened up considerably over the years. These days, I'm quite a bit more tolerant of typographical errors than I am of usage errors. For example, if someone means to type the word change but instead types chnage, it's usually not a big deal to me. But let someone use the word their when it should have been there, my little grammar-troll head starts spinning in circles and spitting pea soup like the girl in The Exorcist.
4.11.10 @ 12:58p
That's a very impressive background with spelling you've got there! I'm kind of the same about errors. I can spot typing errors, because I make them myself, although I usually correct them in emails and other things that other people will see, but it's understandable. Usage, on the other hand, makes my skin crawl, as do spelling errors that can't be typos, because the letters used are not close together, and the typist had to go out of their way to make the typo. That irks me to no end.
Here're some examples: I got an email from a person wanting to be copy editor once, and the subject said, time sensative. Definitely not a typo, and I proved it wasn't when she spelled it that way a second time. Had to restrain myself from telling her to not give up her day job. And the other day, I saw excellent spelled as excellant... not a typo, because it was in big bold letters!
And now I must ask about the crap-ass pronouncer... what did he/she pronounce crappily?
katherine (aka clevertitania)
4.12.10 @ 12:16a
I saw Jim Carrey's mini-fit. I applauded him for it. Striving for better grammar is one thing, being obnoxious about it though...
For the record, I've never had anyone call me out on Twitter. In fact, the only editorializing I've really gotten on Twitter were the swear bots, until I'd blocked them all at least. Those embarrassed tweets I send out afterwards are the product of my own cringing reaction to lousy spelling/grammar/usage. I'm far more tolerant of other people's flubs than my own.
4.12.10 @ 12:47a
As an editor, myself, I've found over the years that what it really comes down to is a disinclination by a lot of people to bother re-reading their own stuff. I mean, most of the spelling errors I see on the Web these days are, more likely than not, words that the writer probably does know how to spell. Russ asked above, "do I chalk those up to clumsy-fingered typos, or do these business professionals not care?"
I say "both" - they're clumsy-fingered typos that these business professionals can't be bothered with double-checking. I mean, we've all missed a key stroke in our day, or forgotten how many "r"s or "f"s are in "sheriff" or "terrific." Unless someone's texting me, in which case, it really is a spur-of-the-moment thing, I usually take it as a bit insulting when someone sends me an e-mail in which they obviously put little stock in how it's received. Especially if they know what I do for a living.
4.12.10 @ 4:29a
@Reem - the word in question was energumen, defined as a person thought to be possessed by an evil spirit. I'd never heard the word before, so I really needed the pronouncer to be clear. Unfortunately, she had a very thick southern accent which was almost unintelligible at times. She completely slurred over the hard g sound to the point that it sounded like she said inner-heewwwmen (lots of emphasis on the eewwww). I got every letter correct except the g; I said h instead. Several attendees at the bee later told me they also thought she said the h sound.
So how did she get the job as pronouncer at the bee? Her husband was Barry Bingham, Jr., the publisher of the Courier-Journal, the Louisville newspaper that had originated the spelling bee in the first place.
4.12.10 @ 10:27a
Tim: I missed moving on to regionals here in STL back in fourth grade for a similar reason. The word was 'restaurants', but it was too difficult to hear (and therefore determine) if there was an 's' on the end of what the guy said, or if he just had a lispy 't' at the end.
Spelling bees always make me think of the very old Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown, determined as ever to win at SOMETHING, preps as hard as he can for his school's spelling bee. He's completely psyched up and ready to go, and then he's given his first word: "maze." Trouble is, that round-headed kid is more in tune with baseball than spelling, and blurts out the first thing that comes to mind: M-A-Y-S. Say hey, Chuck -- you're out of the bee.