Yes, Spelling Matters

Yes, of course, we all have typos and sometimes we think we are spelling a word correctly when we aren’t, and sometimes the clever folks inside our computers and smartphones anticipate what we are about to write and change a word and now it just looks goofy. But… I make this contention:

I know of no good writers who don’t care about spelling. If you care about writing, you care about spelling. Not caring about spelling says something. When I see misspelled words on papers here’s what goes through my head: “Got spellcheck? Did you proofread your paper? Do you simply not know how to spell this word?”

Yes, the poor kid on Jeopardy! misspelled a word in his haste … and he paid for it, but that incident is not the primary issue at work today. Many people who don’t know think we need not care.

Can I get an Amen?! (From USA Today)

After all, technology has already pocked our punctuation, hampered our handwriting and grated at our grammar. What does it mean for spelling to take a swipe?

A lot, according to those adamant about correctly arranged letters.

“Spelling absolutely counts,” says Paige (yes, that’s “Paige” with an “i”) Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the contest’s 1981 champion. Indeed, in Thomas’ case, spelling counted to the tune of thousands of dollars. “What we know is that good spelling is a tremendous reflection on an individual’s overall knowledge and attention to detail. We love thatJeopardy! took a stand.”

Precisely because technology can get tripped up — distinguishing between, say, “your” and “you’re” or those thorny twins “its” and “it’s” — “spelling is as important as it’s ever been,” says J. Richard Gentry, an expert in reading and spelling education and the author of Spel is a Four-Letter Word. “I’m all in favor of treating spelling as seriously as it should be. It matters when a doctor writes a prescription and, apparently, when you have to write an answer on Jeopardy!

Typos, intentional or not, occur in all realms of society, even among elite academics. On Monday, a University of Virginia football scholarship offer letter made the cyber-rounds — for printing “formerly” instead of “formally.” In the first paragraph.

Big Government has also flopped when it comes to combining consonants and vowels. In February, an e-mail from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta misspelled “consistant,” “personel,” “contine” and, up top in all caps, “memorandom.” Yikes.

But spelling stumbles don’t just induce cringes; in everyday life, they can have real repercussions, from landing a job to landing an online date.

“We still evaluate people based on how we present ourselves in writing,” says Mignon Fogarty, aka “Grammar Girl,” an author of books on grammar and spelling and the founder of a popular website, Quick and Dirty Tips. “It suggests how detail-oriented you are, how rushed, how much care you put into your writing.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Penny Nance

    Amen!

  • MMattM

    This quote from the article earned a nod from me as well: “People who have learned English as a second language are the most frustrated with lazy English. They say, ‘We learned the rules, why aren’t Americans using them?’ ”

    It frustrated me when I switched from teaching ESL to teaching native speakers and noticed more overlap in mistakes than there should be.

  • rising4air

    Thank you for posting this excerpt. (Can you hear the pressure releasing from my brain?)

  • Rick

    Grate point.

  • http://www.coffeecuptheology.wordpress.com/ Darryl Willis

    You have an “amen” from me, Scot!

  • SteveSherwood

    As the father of a middle school daughter who is very bright AND profoundly dyslexic, I have come to have more grace with spelling errors as I grade papers where I teach.

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    This says it all:

    http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html

    “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use ‘it’s,’ then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.”

    Your writing says a lot about you.

  • Susan_G1

    I am not proud of this, but when I see common misspellings, I assume that person is less educated or intelligent than he/she truly is. It’s a bias I have. On the other hand, words change, their use and spelling changed as well before dictionaries came along. Language is a living thing, and English is especially egregious in the number of spelling rules we break. I homeschooled my kids, and rules like “i before e, except after c, or when sounding like -ay, as in neighbor and weigh” were jokingly added on to, such as “or when weird science seizes either their leisure or height”. My kids point out that the spelling of such words (and others) ought to change, and I agree with them. So I try to overlook the especially tricky its/it’s and the increasingly more common their/there/they’re.

    It’s really not such a simple issue. If we allow no mercy or grace in such a thing as this, what happens with our mercy-extending in more serious issues? jmho.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    My wife, an elementary teacher, I think would disagree. In her experience, many kids that are fairly smart, but not ‘school focused’ get tripped up with spelling. What she found was that when comparing her students against teachers that focused much more on spelling, that her kids loved writing and learning more. She is all for teaching kids rules of how to spell. But what is more important is teaching kids how to communicate. The spelling comes later.

    I know I flunked virtually every spelling test I ever had. But I am pretty intelligent guy with a couple of graduate degrees. I am pretty good at spelling now. But I think that for some reason it was not really until I was in college and after that I started using a computer as my main writing tool that I started figuring out how to spell a lot of words.

    I kept getting moved into lower and lower reading groups, because I was having difficulty in English (which had a strong focus on spelling). So in sixth grade I was moved into a 5th grade reading group. But when I moved to 7th grade I was tested and was reading at a college sophomore level. However, I still was kept in low English classes throughout middle and high school. It was lucky that I was fairly good in math or else I would not have been in any college prep classes for high school.

    In spite of having low English classes throughout high school, I still was in the 99.9th percentile in English (and math) when I took my college entrance exams. (I say this not to brag, but to suggest that different learning styles are important to recognize.) It was not until taking a college Spanish class that I was tested for a learning disability (my professor was a recent grad that had work on learning disabilities for language acquisition as part of her PhD work.) That learning disability by that point was a moot point (except for getting some extra help in Spanish).

  • Susan_G1

    I loved “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, and I am a huge fan of the Oxford comma. But did you notice my misplaced comma? That’s because there are so many differing opinions on just where it should go, and why. I say relax a bit.

    (A panda walks into a restaurant, sits down, and orders a sandwich. After
    he finishes eating the sandwich, the panda pulls out a gun and shoots
    the waiter then stands up to leave. “Hey!” shouts the manager. “Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your
    sandwich!”

    The panda tells the manager, “Hey, I’m a PANDA! Look it up!”

    The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition for
    panda: “A tree-dwelling mammal of Asian origin, characterized by
    distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”)

    (Oxford comma: clarifies meaning before conjunctions in a series of words. I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.)

  • TomE

    It’s good to see that some of us are able to admit that we are prejudging people based on the faulty data of poor spelling. That’s step one to changing your behavior.

  • Steve Johnson

    As one who suffers with dyslexia, thank you. I wish spelling didn’t matter because I know how often I’m the last one to see that I just don’t have the right combinations of letter on the page/screen.

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Steve, you may have seen the article I linked a bit below (called “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.”) I think he makes quite a few excellent points as to why it is important that, barring reasonable obstacles, adults should be proficient in their own language (and I think he does a better job of articulating why it matters than the USA Today article). My favorite quote (also quoted below), is this: “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use ‘it’s,’ then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.”

    However, here’s another quote from that article: “Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between “to” and “too,” their applications go into the bin.” So while the USA Today article doesn’t address legitimate disabilities like dyslexia, others have. I think any reasonable person, even among those of us who think that grammar and spelling are very important, recognizes that dyslexia is a legitimate obstacle to spelling, and makes allowances.

    And perhaps that actually underscores the point quite well: Those who can should. And in the absence of a legitimate disability like dyslexia, if you still can’t spell every day English words (I’m talking regular usage words, not spelling bee words), construct a complete sentence, etc., it says something about you. It says you’re lacking in intelligence, you lack attention to detail, you’re lazy, or some combination of the above (or something similar). The same reasoning that suggests that those who have a disability that legitimately prevents them from spelling well shouldn’t be expected to also suggests that those who have every ability to learn to spell properly should be expected to.

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Adam, I think the point being made here isn’t about how the world judges third graders. They’re still learning; they’re not expected to have mastered the subject yes.

    Yes, I do think high schoolers should be held to a certain standard, though still not one of perfection as, like I said, they’re still learning. So while I certainly agree with you that you shouldn’t have been placed in a below grade level reading class strictly because you struggled with spelling (when clearly your reading level was quite high), I still think that an effort needed to be made to help you with spelling.

    But the point here is that by adulthood, barring a disability like dyslexia, you should be able to spell well, and without a spell-checker. Not that you shouldn’t have to look up a word every now and then, or be able to spell every single spelling bee word without double-checking yourself—but every day words should be automatic, including the tricky ones (its/to/your/there, and each of there respective counterparts), and you should know when a word is out of your comfort zone and needs to be looked up. And you should make the effort to do so.

    And since that’s the expectation for adults, then we should teach our kids accordingly. We should set the bar high, and for those who struggle to meet it, we should teach accordingly.

  • SteveSherwood

    “I think any reasonable person…makes allowances” for dyslexia. But, do we know? I have had several college students that did not know themselves that they were dyslexic until being tested in college. They’d just always been told they were “lacking in intelligence.”

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    By the way, I grew up both in the States and overseas. I’ve attended Swiss school and French school. I don’t know about non-French speaking countries, but I can tell you that even in elementary school, let alone middle and high school, both Swiss and French children have a very, very high degree of competency in their native tongue, both in spelling and in grammar. The reason for this is rather straightforward, and the same reason that my grandparents’ generation and (to an lesser, but still usually pretty decent, extent) my parents’ generation have excellent command of grammar and spelling: they teach it. Every day, with rules, and practice, and tests, etc. No super-cool, cutting edge teaching methods (such as those we now use instead of teaching arithmetic, addition/subtraction/multiplication/division tables, spelling, grammar, etc.)—they just learn it, period. If they can do it, why are we so adamant to excuse ourselves and our kids from doing the same?

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Isn’t that more of a reflection on us as parents, teachers, evaluators, etc., who saw a child struggling but failed to understand (and no doubt, often, to care) why, rather than a reason to excuse our entire society, including the vast majority who are quite capable but are no longer being taught (and no longer see any value in it)?

  • SteveSherwood

    I don’t know that I was “excusing” anything. I thought I was just saying I try to “have more grace” towards students as I don’t know their stories, and I’m sure at least some of them are mirrored by my daughter’s.

  • Cliff

    “but every day words should be automatic, including the tricky ones (its/to/your/there, and each of there respective counterparts), and you should know when a word is out of your comfort zone and needs to be looked up. And you should make the effort to do so.”

    …and each of THEIR (not there) respective counterparts. :o)

  • Susan_G1

    I speak four languages (my native tongue is French), taught Latin for years, and homeschooled my kids. I’m interested in languages and syntax, though my degrees are in science (I’m an MD.)

    Spelling and grammar in Latin are exceedingly easy. There are no silent letters, few dipthongs or diagraphs. The language is heavily declined and conjugated, making it easy to identify meaning. The Romance languages (French, Italian, etc.) follow these principles, the easiest of which is Spanish, where the letters always have the same sound.

    English is a nightmare compared to the above. It is lightly declined and conjugated. The spelling of many words have a long lost historical basis and make little sense today. However, it is our language, and we should know it. The only way to learn it well is to practice heavily, as your parents, grandparents and you have done. The same is true of basic Mathematics.

    I never taught in public school, so I know little of the pressures teachers are under, but I do know that the quality of our educational system has declined, which is why I homeschooled my kids. I understand the frustration of teaching languages, esp. English.

    How much geology, biology (e.g., genetics, anatomy, physiology, biochemistry), chemistry, physics, algebra, calculus, geometry, state, national and world history, geography, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, art (artists, techniques and schools of thought), information technology, languages, etc. do your parents and grandparents know? Exactly what should public schools cut to teach spelling, grammar, and rote memorization math?

    If you are a writer, spelling and grammar are critical, I won’t argue this. Slips cause loss of credibility. But we aren’t all writers. Those of us who need to publish papers learn what we need to know. There are many millions of people who are not professionals yet have the opportunity now to participate in national discourse. Frankly, I’m willing to cut them some slack on spelling and grammar if they want to participate in a meaningful way.

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

    Counter-point: Flannery O’Connor. Excellent writer; horrible speller. (See, e.g., her letters.)

  • Susan_G1

    Or Cormac McCarthy: excellent writer; horrible grammar.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    We have higher overall graduation rates, more people with college degrees. Some schools may be declining, but on average in spite of the whipping boy of public education, on average education is getting better. Runs counter to expectation. But happens to be reality.

  • Susan_G1

    The level of education in America is deplorable for a first-world nation. in 2011, the United States ranked 11th in fourth-grade math, 9th in eighth-grade
    math, 7th in fourth-grade science and 10th in eighth-grade science (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). While it is true that this is better than 1999 (when we were 14th), why are we so far behind Hungary or (yay!) Canada?

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    But that isn’t what you said. As a comparison against itself, the US is doing much better than it has in the past. It is improving. It may not be improving as much as you like, but that is something different from saying it is declining. Current graduation rates are expected to be 78%. Way too low, especially among poor and minority students. But this mythical point in history where everyone received a top notch education did not exist.

  • Susan_G1

    True. I stand corrected. Thank you for your graciousness.

    How do you feel our education compares, say, to Revolutionary War era education, when average citizens could discuss the politics of the day with great insight? College education was much lower then, but people could speak intelligently on matters of importance.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    Some people could speak clearly on matters of great importance. As is true now. But in the 1790s about 20% of the US population were slaves. About 90% of males in settled areas were literate. About 45-60% of women were literate in settled areas. But it was lower in less settled areas. And by literate we are talking about very basic literacy, able to sign their names and read portions of scripture. Even talking about a current 4th grade level of literacy I have seen estimates that drop the literacy rates of revolutionary era US to 50 to 60 percent of non-slave population.

  • Susan_G1

    OK. You have the stats and obviously the creds.. I was wrong. No mythical period of top notch education. Another one bites the dust.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    Sorry, this is one of the areas that I have really researched and know something about.

  • Susan_G1

    Nope, no apology necessary. I was wrong and I stand corrected. Thanks are in order, not apologies. Good to know. Sigh. I like mythology.

  • scotmcknight

    Well, yes, but I think she toyed with Southern spellings according to pronunciation. I’ve read each of her letters…

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    One of the best books that destroys some myths, but is actually a really good positive book is Bradley Wright’s Upside: The Surprising Good News About the State of our World. Wright is a Christian sociologist and statistician (and has a blog on Patheos). In spite of the destruction of some of our myths the end result is that I think we have a better idea of what actually is (and isn’t) working in our world. Excuse my link. But here is a review I wrote of it. http://bookwi.se/upside/

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Hmm, yeah, fair enough. I’m trying to think that through, though. What does having more grace look like? Is it the same result as “excusing” it (lowering the expectation), but with better motives (grace, sympathetic understanding)?

    I ask because your response made me realize something. It seems that these days, there are many who would use God’s grace and love as an excuse for permissiveness, and I suddenly realized that I’ve come to have a subtle subconscious reaction to phrases like “have more grace” because of how pervasively they are used to excuse or condone sin. (In this case we’re talking about grammar and spelling, not sin, but such forms of speech occur a lot in discussions about sin—or in response to such discussions.)

    It’s really unfortunate, because I shouldn’t react negatively to the idea of having grace for someone. Or perhaps what’s unfortunate is that “having grace” has come to have a connotation of “excusing.”

    And that’s what leads me to my question. I believe you, I don’t think you’re trying to excuse anything. So if “having more grace” isn’t making excuses for lower standards from an attitude of compassionate understanding, what is it?

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Oh, you got me they’re. ;-)

  • Amanda B.

    As a grading assistant at a Bible school, there are a few grammar and spelling mistakes that I’m willing to go easy on in papers. For the weirder one-off “exceptions” (I’m looking at you, its/it’s), I’m willing to give students a break for not having fully memorized every detail of English’s muddled grammar. I will definitely mark errors that should have been caught by spell check, and will almost always mark misused words and homophones. I don’t want to punish students for not having aced English in high school, but I also want to help them learn how to be better writers and communicators.

    In my experience, papers that have a high number of spelling errors are the most likely to be rambling, incoherent, or off-topic. These students have either never been taught how to think and write in an organized way, or else they haven’t put in the effort to do the assignment properly. So while it’s dreadfully incorrect to assume that a poor speller is unintelligent, it does seem like it’s usually a sign (barring dyslexia) that their overall writing skill is also weak.

    I don’t expect that every single student should turn in stellar writing. But between electronic spell check and having a friend proofread for them, I do expect that, by the end of their schooling with us, they should be able to compose something that is readable. It seems to me that every adult who can speak English proficiently (again, barring disability) can also be taught to write English intelligibly. I think this should be considered a basic life skill, rather than solely the turf of grammar geeks.

  • SteveSherwood

    Ok. I’ll give that a shot. I want to also say that it feels odd to me that spelling is being equated with sin, even if metaphorically.

    As to what “giving grace” regarding spelling specifically means for me I’d offer a couple things. My job entails grading papers written by undergrads, about 50-60% of whom are freshmen. I pretty consistently note spelling and grammar mistakes that they make, but don’t mark them down significantly, particularly if their ideas are excellent.

    With students that seem to have significant and ongoing spelling issues, beyond what could be explained by using spell check, I’ll approach them individually to see if there are learning disability issues at play that they haven’t shared at the start of the semester.

    I also interact a good bit with folks via email and social media. I have peers that draw attention to every mistake in an email or facebook post. They’ll often couch that with “I know this is just the anal prof in me, but…” I don’t really see any need to do that, and just take folks’ posts/emails as they are.

    I don’t think any of these things are particularly noble, but you asked, so this is my attempt to answer.

  • Susan_G1

    Grace is accepting people as they are, warts, poor spelling/grammar, and all, without holding their faults against them. It doesn’t mean calling for a lower bar; it means not chastising those who haven’t reached it, for whatever reason that is (you don’t know their circumstances, and you don’t need to in order to extend them grace.)

    Poor spelling and grammar are not a sin. While they are very important for writers, they are not as important for everyone who participates in discussion. jmho.

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Yeah, sounds about right. Thanks.

    Out of curiosity, what, if anything, would be different if they were juniors or seniors?

    BTW, spelling and sin are NOT being equated, not even metaphorically. The commonality is NOT the spelling and sinning. The commonality is the “giving more grace” phrase, and the reason for that is that it’s a phrase used much more commonly in reference to moral and behavior issues. That is where I developed this implicit connotation in which “giving grace” is essentially excusing. Then, when you and others use that phrase here, the fact that it often has that connotation in other discussions—discussions not relating to spelling—is what prompted me to misunderstand what you meant by “give more grace.” That’s the only reason I mention that other context—not to equate bad spelling to sin, but simply to explain where that negative and unfortunate connotation of the phrase “give more grace” comes from.

  • SteveSherwood

    I think, by the time students are juniors/seniors there are higher expectations as to quality generally, including spelling and grammar. If nothing else, there would be an expectation that they be more aware of the need to and means to edit. I am not one to bash all things public education, but I do think it’s fair to say most students don’t enter college having written much.

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Well said, I agree.

    Are you suggesting that most students entering college haven’t had many writing assignments in high school? Or that they haven’t written much outside of school assignments? Or that they haven’t written many of certain types of papers? I was a high school math teacher for all of one year, but it was long enough to learn that one of the huge things right now, in ELA, is journaling. Seriously, they practically think journaling will solve all of their ELA problems. Kids journal every dang day. How does that fit in?

    My parents were both grade school educators, and two of the most amazing teachers you’ll ever find anywhere. My mother’s bachelor’s was in education with an emphasis on teaching reading. She thinks journaling is a terrible idea, because all it does is further reinforce the mistakes kids are making. They don’t need to practice excessively their current mistakes; they need to have them corrected. Add to that the aversion to red pens, both figuratively and literally speaking, and I can see her point. I do know this much: As a first year teacher, between curriculum, lesson planning, grading assignments, and grading tests, I was extremely over-worked—but it was nothing compared to how overworked those ELA teachers were, because part of the journaling process is that the teacher has to respond to all of her students. They were responding to dozens, if not hundreds, of journal entries every night!

    I also know that my writing took a massive leap in the 7th grade, when my mother decided she was going to start correcting my papers—everything I turned in. In the beginning, they came back to me more red than black. But I couldn’t overstate how much my writing improved in the 7th and 8th grades.

  • http://www.jbwtucker.com/ Josh Tucker

    Again, I never said poor spelling or grammar were sin. Not ever. If you think I did, I’d like you to show me exactly where I said such a thing.

    I’m also not sure how anything anyone has said here, myself included, goes against that definition of grace.

    True grace not only includes unconditional acceptance, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, etc., but must also still has room for exhortation to do better. Jesus showed grace and mercy to Mary, the adulteress, despite the fact that the law condemned her; but, as he always did, he also told her to go and sin no more.

  • Susan_G1

    I would hardly compare adultery to misspelling “their”. Seeing how you agree with my definition of grace, I don’t know why you are being so belligerent here.

  • SteveSherwood

    I meant they haven’t written many traditional, state-your-thesis-make-your-argument-provide-a-conclusion kinds of papers.

  • mc

    Susan said :

    I loved “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, and I am a huge fan of the Oxford comma.

    If you are referring to the second comma, then it’s only misplaced in the USA. UK puts the punctuation in the logical place, before or after the end-quote, depending on meaning.

  • Susan_G1

    The Oxford comma (also called the Harvard comma) is used less in the UK press than the US press. In the example above, the Oxford comma belongs between the words “Ayn Rand” and “and”. If avoided, the sentence reads as if Ayn Rand and God were her parents. :)


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