Considering the spelling problemBy: Susan Rushton
In Scotland, as Don and I walked the several blocks from the hotel to the Edinburgh train station, and then walked a couple of blocks from the Glasgow station to our second hotel, I was aware of a burr in my sock. It didn’t hurt, it just kept attracting attention to itself. I didn’t notice it all the time. Not when I was sitting or only standing. Sometimes not even when I was walking.
But I had enough to deal with, loaded down with my half of the luggage … and I’m here to tell you we are not efficient or thoughtful packers. I’d have been happier without that burr continuing to announce its presence.
But I survived just fine. It was only a little burr. However, the moment we locked the hotel door and set down our junk, I took off my shoe and solved my tiny problem. Ah. Life was much better.
Don’t kid me, now — you’ve been there: Everyone past a certain age has dealt with a paper cut, or a blackberry seed between your teeth, or the fluorescent light that just noticeably flickers — not enough for management to replace it, but enough to drive you nuts.
Little things, minor things.
And when I think of all the big stuff we have to deal with, it seems so picayune to focus on the little stuff. On the other hand, we don’t all define minor stuff in the same way.
For example: I’m impressed how many people scold me when I point out misspellings in, oh, books, press releases, Facebook posts, posters, websites.
What’s the problem, they ask, figuratively rolling their eyes at me. You know what they mean, you know what they’re trying to say, you know who they’re talking about. Why make such a big deal about it? Let ‘em alone, you make mistakes, too, stop being so picky. Let it ride. It’s not that important.
Of course, it’s mostly spelling and writing errors people are willing to ignore. Other mistakes they’re not so tolerant about. Consider the plumber or the bridge engineer or the recipe with 3 tablespoons of horseradish instead of 3 teaspoons. They’re just little errors, don’t be so picky.
But spelling’s different, you say. Look at Shakespeare, the King James Bible, Chaucer and Scotland’s Robert Burns. Language is a living thing, you say. It’s changing all the time.
Sure it is.
But I don’t think that’s the reasoning behind people’s general tolerance of misspellings.
I think people are willing to be casual about misspellings because most of the time they know what these misspellers are trying to say. We understand that slip of the finger on the keyboard, or the reluctance to switch from this thought to checking the dictionary.
What counts more than correctness, I hear, is the story, the point, the message. Not spelling, which is mechanical, bloodless. It has nothing to do with the creative process.
OK. But if you’re going to insist that spelling’s unimportant, I insist that you insist that spelling’s never important. Don’t say I can’t write Sacramento as the capital of the state. Don’t say I can’t spell your name any way I want to, regardless of how you spell it.
I grew up a Mad Magazine groupie, totally mesmerized by that publication and all those connected with it. So during my first trip to New York, I visited the offices … and I was entranced at all the faces I recognized.
I had a chance to impress them, and I blew it: they briefly discussed whether an article spelled Chiang Kai Shek’s name correctly.
I said (and I don’t like the memory) “He’s not going to complain.”
I really said that.
They ignored me, as they should have. I was only a gawping fan. How many years had I spent in the magazine business? Was I an editor? A writer? By writer, they’d have meant published writer. With a track record.
Zero, no and no.
And the best evidence of my amateur status was my disdain for spelling someone’s name correctly. I was embarrassed, and felt the same way several months later when I saw the printed page. They got it right.
Because spelling is important.
No, spelling has nothing to do with creativity. Instead, it means something else about you: It means you care about getting things right. It means you’ve done your work, and those reading your work can relax, knowing that they won’t suddenly have to deal with a burr in their sock.
Susan Rushton’s opinion column appears regularly in the Auburn Journal. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.