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A Few Thoughts on Bad Spelling

Which do you prefer:  a cold beer, or a properly spelled beer?

Which do you prefer: a cold beer, or a properly spelled beer?

Tidy Little Boxes.

The world loves to categorize people. We love labels and classifications and little boxes we can put people in. It's human nature, a trait honed well by our need to survive: if an organism can't quickly and neatly classify "dangerous predator" and "benign fellow organism" at just a glance, it is too often doomed to die an early death. It's no wonder we love to say, "There are two types of people" and then fill in those blanks so glibly.

Here's my own glib statement, then. There are three types of people: those who spell badly ... those who love to publicly correct those who spell badly ... and those rare angels who spell well and effortlessly and who refuse to judge others based on their own inability to do so.

The meaning is, nonetheless, clear.

The meaning is, nonetheless, clear.

Love the Spell-Sinner, Hate the Spell-Sin!

I've always had a knack for spelling. As a child, I competed well in spelling bees at every grade level. Writing has been a central theme in my life since I was in second grade, and spelling always went hand-in-hand with proper writing. For many years, I believed there was probably a special bolgia in Dante's Hell for those who abused words so badly. They were on par with those who didn't return books, or who -- gasp! -- bent the tips of pages back into dog-ears or left a book spread out on its face, spine stretched and buckled, rather than use a proper bookmark.

I don't like spelling errors. I don't like making them. I believe there is no place for them in formal written documents and in published work. I can't embrace them or love them, those misguided words. I can, however, embrace and love a person who misspells. The word -- the error -- is not the person. If hiring two candidates of equal competency in all other areas, I'd choose the one with a better grasp of word mechanics. But given the choice between those who spell badly and those who publicly correct bad spelling, there's no comparison: give me the serial mis-speller!

Spelling Doesn't Make the Man.

Over the years I've come to the happy realization that some of the best people I know, and have known, are some of the worst spellers. Some are truly creative in their spelling; others transpose a letter here and there; some let an occasional "weird" get past them. Some are comfortable with their troubled spelling; others, ashamed to the point of letting it affect their overall confidence. In most cases, they know quite well that spelling is not their strong point, even without someone pointing it out to them.

Interestingly, some of the worst people I've known are those who cannot help but publicly correct such errors. These are the internet gnomes who spend hours on forums or local news sites gleefully clapping their hands together and crying out, "Aha! I found an error! Now I must publicly humiliate the person! Precious, precious, how happy I am!" They are the teacher who mocks the student in front of the class, rather than pointing out the error silently with that all-powerful red pen; they are the insensitive boss or co-worker who corrects an error in an email by forwarding it to several people or by using that dreaded "reply all" function. They are the Facebook "friend" who poisons the page with an attack on someone's very candid and personal post. They are everywhere.

The Best Tools Come with Tattered Covers.

The Best Tools Come with Tattered Covers.

How Well Do You Spell?

Spelling: Not an Easy Fix.

Spelling is an interesting skill. I'm not an expert in the teaching of reading, writing, and spelling but my own observation has been that once a person has reached maturity, their ability to spell is pretty much set. This, of course, doesn't necessarily apply to those who are learning literacy and fluency in a new language, nor to those who struggled with basic literacy as children and are now learning to read and write as an adult. But for the average person who received the average education, it has been my experience that there are good spellers and poor spellers. Some of the poor spellers hide it well: they know how to make good use of spell check functions, and they are assiduous in proofreading (or asking others to proofread for them). They struggle, and they're well aware of that struggle. They care enough to make the extra effort to spell well, while others make it look easy.

Spellcheck, though, has its limitations. It doesn't know that "their" or "they're" is being used inappropriately; it can't distinguish between "hoarse" and "horse." The contemporary more-intuitive word processing programs sometimes catch such homophones, but not always, and sometimes they're more problematic than they are useful. The bottom line is a writer must have enough of a grasp of spelling to be able to identify words that just look wrong in order to spell well even with the use of a computer.

Do You Publicly Correct Others?

The Dynamics of Public Correction.

The act of publicly correcting another is a fascinating thing. It immediately sets up an implied superior - inferior relationship. It's a power play, an act of dominance, and a means of looking better at the expense of the poor soul who -- heaven forbid! -- transposed a letter or even totally botched a word. It's a way of exhibiting one's own intelligence and playing it as much higher than that of the other party. It draws attention to the one who makes such corrections -- a "look at me!" while drawing equal attention to the victim by implying, "Laugh at them!"

It's also petty and snide. It is narrow of mind and small of brain. Worse, in public forums it has a sneaky way of shifting focus from a very real and perhaps legitimate argument or perspective to nothing more than a minor error. It is the written equivalent of scoffing at someone because they have a lisp, and discounting the very intelligent and rational thoughts they wish to convey.

In my past profession, we used to debate employee misconduct by drawing the distinction between "mistake of the head" versus "mistakes of the heart." The former describes your typical honest error. The latter is your ill-intentioned misdeed -- a deliberate act of misconduct. Doubtless you've had cashiers give you incorrect change. When done unintentionally, that's a mistake of the head. Perhaps, like myself, you've had a waitress deliberately alter your charge card slip to give herself a higher tip. (In the instance I'm referring to, the waitress altered the numbers so that her 20% tip became 100% of the total bill.) That is a mistake of the heart.

Those who spell poorly make mistakes of the head. They make innocent, and forgivable, errors. Those who choose to point fingers at them and mock them publicly make mistakes of the heart. Dante most certainly has reserved a special bolgia in his inferno for them.

Does Spelling Hold You Back?


In recent years, the subject of "bullying," has gotten copious amounts of attention. It's gone overboard in many ways. One thing that strikes me about those who carry the torches through the town square, intent on burning bullies at the stake, is the hypocrisy. They can hide their own bullying when crying out, "Bully! Bully!" They can justify acts of violence or cruelty because they felt they were once bullied.

Nonetheless, those who like to publicly humiliate others are, plain and simple, bullies. When they do so for that oh-so-awful act of misspelling a mere word, they are nothing more than grown-up schoolyard bullies. They abuse a human being for what -- the fact that very human being unintentionally abused a word? Are words more important than people?

Toward Online Civility.

I don't like misspelled words. I cringe when I see them. I like tidy thoughts presented in even tidier packages. Yet they don't give me the same sick feeling I get every time I see someone attack someone for those little spellos. Every time that happens, I feel like I've witnessed someone spitting in someone else's face, or knocking the books out of the shy kid's hands. I feel like washing my hands because I feel dirty somehow.

So often I've witnessed someone pointing out a spelling error and, when taken to task for it by others, they respond with, "Well, they should know it's a misspelling so they are taken more seriously in the future. Someone should point it out to them! It's for their own good!" I always love that response -- now we don't just have a public bully who is showing their own mental superiority because they recognize a spelling error, but we also have someone who is patting themselves on the back because they're making such an investment in the future of that poor, inferior soul who dared to misspell a word.

Think about this: let's say you're in a public place, and you're wearing that new pair of pants you're proud to fit into. You start out the morning looking in the mirror saying, "I'm lookin' good!" and then you venture out into a crowded Starbucks for your morning macchiato delight. No sooner do you get in line than someone across the room shrieks, "Ohmigod! Look! She still has the stickers on the back of her pants! How funny!" Who's the better person? That charmer, or the lady who quietly approaches and says in a low tone, "Excuse me ... I don't think you realize there are still some tags on the back of those cute new jeans ... I hope you don't mind me mentioning it."

If you run across a spelling error and you truly care about the person who has made it, and it actually matters (which most comments in a forum really, at core, don't), point it out to them tactfully and privately. As we used to teach our organizational supervisors, "Praise publicly, criticize privately." If you can email them with a courteous note, great. If you can add a comment saying, "This isn't intended for public view, so please don't approve it, but I thought you'd want to know ..." great. But don't think that tearing a person down in public is appropriate. There's a reason villages quit securing miscreants in stocks and letting townspeople throw rotten tomatoes at their faces -- public humiliation is so 15th century.

I love words. Sometimes I love them more than people, truth be told. But people are always more deserving of kindness than words. Abuse a word, it isn't going to have any worse a day for it. It isn't going to go home and kick its dog because its feelings got hurt. But abuse a person, and you've abused someone real and alive. Proud much?