Friday, November 16, 2012

The Ubiquity of Poor Spelling

Occasionally, I pick up a book called War Letters edited by Andrew Carroll.  It is a great read but rarely do I read it for long. I enjoy it in short spurts.  It is a compilation of actual war correspondence from American wars starting with the American Civil War.  It has moments of beauty and can give the reader a real connection with history.  The problem with the book is the letters in it are just spelled so badly that I cannot read the book for long.  It is a reminder that people have always been bad spellers, even worse than today. These letter writers have good excuses too.  Some of them were writing in foxholes, from battlefield hospitals and/or in bad lighting. Most of them didn't have dictionaries readily available and had a lot of other things to worry about.

Nowadays, there really aren't a lot of good excuses for poor spelling. Every person on the net has access the greatest reference library ever created. You can double check everything that you write. It takes only a few seconds (not an exaggeration) to check the spelling on any number of websites like or

Spell check software is part of the solution but it is also a big part of the problem. Even though, Facebook will put little red squiggle lines below a bad word like "alot" (that's right "alot" is not a word, it is spell "a lot"), I still see "a lot" spelled as one word. Spell checks are demons because so many people become dependent on them and think that if their posting passes the spell check, then they are okay. But spell check won't tell you if you are using the wrong word. It won't tell you if you are using "your" instead of "you're," "sense" instead of "since," "then" instead of "than," "do" instead of "due," "hear" instead of "here" or "to" instead of "too." These are the mistakes I see on a daily basis. Some of this come from college educated people. How do I explain this?

One explanation is some of them are non-native English speakers. I know someone who continues to mistaken the words "such" and "should." Her emails are very confusing. Since Spanish is her native tongue, she is forgiven. Actually, a lot of the people I know from non-English cultures write and spell better than a lot of the Americans I grew up with.  The next explanation I have is stupidity, but since most of the people I know are not stupid ... I have to let this slide for most of them.

I do not purport infallibility.  My greatest demon is leaving out small words. When I proof read and edit, my brain has a tendency to fill in words that are not really there. This is particularly a problem when that little word is "not" which usually changes the entire meaning of a sentence. But spelling is not my hobgoblin, it is not because I am good at spelling, it is because I take the time to look it up when I have to. This is because I care about what I am writing. When people say to me that they are bad spellers, I think the same about them as I do about people who say that they are "bad at school."  Everyone is "bad at school," but some of us work very hard to overcome it and learn how to be good at it. Those who are "bad at school" or "bad at spelling," they are just lazy.

I do spell things incorrectly sometimes, but I do learn from this. I usually don't make the same mistake more than once.  Some of the people I converse with electronically clearly don't learn from their mistakes or don't care. I discuss politics a lot with friends on Facebook. I have one friend that seems to be obsessed with rhetoric, but he hasn't once spelled word "rhetoric" correctly.  It is clear to me that these people just don't give a shit about what they are writing. If they did, they'd take a few extra seconds to at least write something in English. If they don't care about what they are writing, why should I?

What's the solution? One big solution is don't let them get away with it. Point it out to them. Just tell them, blatantly if you have to, "sorry but I don't understand what you wrote." This goes a long way, I hope.  Maybe they will take time to write something clearly in the future.  It just takes a few seconds. The onus of clarity is on the writer not the reader. A reader shouldn't have to guess as to what word a writer meant. And for all those messages you get from people saying "your welcome," write back simply stating "I don't own a welcome."  Hopefully, they will figure it out.


Olga said...

I recently wrote about my deteriorating spelling ability in my blog, and it was full of excuses. I have a dear friend who feels the need to point out all my spelling errors--especially when I have made a stunninly intellectual point of some kind in writing but have missed a spell check hint. The ability to spell correctly is not positively corelated to intelligence.

Mark Peloquin said...

Do you consistently misspell the same words? That's what bugs me. Seeing the same one misspelled over and over again. Simple little words too.

Olga said...

SYNONYM: a word used in place of the one you can't spell.

Mark Peloquin said...

I like that. I will have to remember that.