Monday, February 21, 2005

Missives on language from a writer who can't spell

Washington Post writer Steve Hendrix has an amusing piece on how bad of a speller he is. And he's not kidding. He's terrible.
I know many people assume it's because I'm too lazy to reach for the dictionary. One of my colleagues recently summarized her 'nuff-said attitude toward misspellers by quoting to me the entirety of Stuart Little's curt spelling lesson to a class of grade-schoolers: "A misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone. I consider it a very fine thing to spell words correctly, and I strongly urge every one of you to buy a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and consult it whenever you are in the slightest doubt. So much for spelling. What's next?"

Ah, the pitiless doctrine of Just Look It Up. It's hard to explain to my colleague, much less to E.B. White, that I'm "in the slightest doubt" with about every 20th word I write. Or that I'm sometimes too far at sea to even find it in the dictionary. (I once spent 20 minutes rewriting "mosquito" because I couldn't even get close enough for spell-check to take over.) Or that in the instant between looking up from the dictionary and turning to the keyboard, I can entirely forget what I've just seen (leaving me, at worst, with one index finger on the page while I peck out a letter at a time with the other).

I can't really relate to the problems he faces -- as I'm sure few of us can -- but I can relate with the people who are editing his work.
It's just hugely embarrassing to be a professional writer who is routinely laughed out of Scrabble games. Not to mention perilous. I was put on probation at an Atlanta newspaper for causing excessive spelling trauma on deadline (a kindly copy editor began covering for me). And I've watched every editor I've ever worked for go through a sort of five-step process of realization (disbelief, anger, anger, resignation, anger) before finally assigning some beleaguered proofreader to shadow my every keystroke.
In addition to the amusing anecdotes, he shares his self-staged intervention at an elementary school and looks at some changes in schools that might be making students worse spellers. And there's a sprinkling of language commentary included, too:
It doesn't need to be this way. Did you know they don't really have such a thing as misspelling in Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries with a more straightforward orthography? Ask a fellow on the streets of Lima how to spell abogado, and he'll simply repeat the word more slowly. It's like asking someone in Washington to spell FBI.


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