In 2010, one of the original copies of the Pro...

In 2010, one of the original copies of the Proclamation, hung in the Oval Office, near a portrait of Lincoln, and above a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eighth-grader Thomas Hurley III knew the right answer, er, question, in his Jeopardy round was Emancipation Proclamation, but he misspelled it and lost some three thousand dollars. He added an extra “t”, making it “emanciptation”. Oops.

When I first heard about this I thought Master Hurley had been wronged.  I thought that Alex Trebek and company had given other contestants slack on this in the past, but if so, they didn’t this time. After mulling this over a bit I’ve decided that Jeopardy was right.  Spelling does matter, and perhaps more than ever in this digital age where acronymic substitution is supplanting cursive communication in daily life.

Since I’ve been blogging these several years I’ve noticed that correspondents generally fall into one of two categories, those who display obvious editing in their posts and comments and those who don’t. There isn’t much middle ground so far as I can see. This matters in that errors in spelling, grammar and syntax correlate inversely, in my experience, with quality of thought and the seriousness of the correspondent. Some on the other hand seem to take a sort of pride in speed over care. In at least one case this may be an intentional cover for dyslexia, sprinkling many errors to hide an inability to eliminate a few. Otherwise,would it be so hard to engage the ubiquitous spell checker? Then too, WordPress itself, which most of us use, contains such software.  In any case, I find it hard to take seriously any blogging post or comment that shows carelessness. If the author doesn’t take his words seriously, why should I?  It’s a matter of respect for the person you’re talking to, isn’t it?

It is my understanding that the mechanics of composition are much less rigorous in the schools now than in the past, including spelling, diagramming of sentences, and of course cursive writing as discussed in the previous post. This may have come about because of the availability of software like spelling and grammar checkers, but I think its redolent of a general disaffection with rote learning. Rote learning isn’t cool, and I think that’s a mistake.  Rote learning is useful because it promotes a reservoir of readily-available material to the mind, builds confidence, and carves thought pathways that otherwise do not exist.  And don’t hope to succeed in Jeopardy if you don’t know your Presidents.  And how to spell them.

Attention to detail is important to clear thinking. I blew the dust off some of my old references and came up with this list of words that might be easily confused by spelling errors:

adapt, adept, adopt
alley, ally
allude, elude
anecdote, antidote
angel, angle
arraign, arrange
bloc, block
calvary, cavalry
cannon, canon
canvas, canvass
chord, cord
climactic, climatic
elicit, illicit
genteel, gentile
ingenious, ingenuous
marital, martial (sometimes the same, however)
prescribe, proscribe
waive, wave

Some of the contestants in the Scripps Nationa...

Some of the contestants in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Spelling does matter, doesn’t it? And especially in our language, English, that polyglot stew of parts taken from ever so many other languages and cultures. I have read that other languages like Spanish and French have much more definite rules for grammar and pronunciation than English, but they also have far fewer words and less power of nuance. Do those languages even have crossword puzzles?

Good luck to you, Thomas Hurley. It just might be that your Jeopardy spelling lesson might be worth more than $3,000 to your future!

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Spelling

  1. “When are we going to eat Grandma?” -vs- “When are we going to eat, Grandma?”

    Punctuation matters! GREAT POST!


  2. PiedType says:

    And then there’s cache and cachet, my pet peeve for the last few years. Media types have so mangled, mixed, and misused these two words that I wonder if the younger generation will ever sort them out.


  3. Well I am not an authority on my language (Spanish) or yours of the one I am currently studying which is French so I can only rely on my experience speaking and living all three, I can assure you that you can find crossword puzzles in both French and Spanish, of course not all three have a population that can answer them from beginning to end… and each language is in constant growth and evolution right along with the people that use it! Nuances, hmmm, I don’t understand what you are referring to…


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Glad to see you stopping by again, Alexandra. I don’t know Spanish or French, so your input is very welcome.

      By nuances I am referring to the rich reservoir of synonyms available in English. Synonyms generally have slight differences in meaning from one another, thus, nuances. This is probably not the best example, but consider the word “good”:

      Good, excellent, superior, above par, nice, fine, choice, rare, priceless, unparagoned, unparalleled, superfine, superexcellent, of the first water, crack, prime, tip-top, gilt-edged, first-class, capital, cardinal, couleur de rose, peerless, matchless, inestimable, precious as the apple of the eye, satisfactory, fair, fresh, unspoiled, sound.

      Or, for another example, look up “nuance” in your thesaurus. I found 16 synonyms.


      • Nuance, I love that word, but I did not understand what you were referring to in terms of language…nuance is a subtle change that gives new light to something, barely perceptible and yet identifiable… So you meant synonyms… Yeah, we’ve got those too! And we make an effort to use them in our intentions to multiply or vocabulary of daily usage… Our language, compared to yours is a bit more direct, though handled with mastery like our nobel prize winning autors and poets do, it can sing in your ear and transform you… It’ll let you travel up and down the continent and even across the big blue sea…


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          You make a good point, Alexandra, that linguistic creativity can, as you say, “sing in your ear and transform you . . . ” in many languages. You remind us that language goes part and parcel with culture and tribal differences over that are, to say the least, a matter of great sensitivity. My comments, and I’m confident, those of the other commenters here are not intended to disparage any culture but only to discuss the mechanism that English affords. I have personally studied two years of Latin in high school and two of German in college, and am fluent in nothing but English, so I value your perspective on this.


  4. Good post Jim, I enjoyed reading this (and hadn’t heard about Thomas Hurley). I was reminded of a text communication I had with my son shortly after getting a new cell phone. I could not find the question mark. So of course I could not press the “send” key. So finally in exasperation I sent “Do you have a copy of Middlemarch question mark” I laughed when a moment later I received his response saying “Yes, comma, I will bring it over period”

    And when I saw your word list, I was reminded of an occasion years ago, in my youth in fact, when I was filling out an application for credit at Wachovia (now,
    alas, Wells Fargo). The application form asked for martial status. I drew a circle around the word – don’t know whether anyone there noticed or knew why.


  5. Grr…. actually he wrote “Yes comma I will bring it over period” but my fingers put commas where they belong without consulting my brain. Not that it matters. But wordpress won’t let me edit my comment.
    I have a friend who thinks plural possessive is not important. I asked him whether a person who has three dogs at the vet would rather get a notice saying “We regret to inform you of your dog’s demise” or “We regret to inform you of your dogs’ demise” or the same with no apostrophe … Precision matters.


  6. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: Great artilcle. The journey of the English language from Old English (Anglo-Saxon) through the five (some say more) different versions of Middle English into Modern English was precarious, interesting, and often fascinating, with many of our modern notions of spelling, grammar, and punctuation often becoming accident victims.

    When Geoffrey Chaucer, in “The Knight’s Tale,” says of his Knight, ” He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde/In all his lyf unto no maner wight,” he clearly violates several of our modern ideas about spelling and grammar (his use of the double negative, which he employed often), to the consternation of modern English teachers. Yet we know what he means and it is Chaucer’s version of Middle English, the one spoken in London, which prevails over the others and becomes Modern English. For example, the version of Middle English in which “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” was written is incomprehensible to the modern reader without specialized instruction.

    Even in a work considered to be an early example of Modern English, Sir Thomas Malory’s “Mort D’Arthur,” considered by many to be the first English novel, illustrates the problems of spelling and grammer in its opening line: “Hit bifell in engelonde….” Though its spellings and grammar are often unfamiliar for the modern reader, anyone can read his or her way through the work with relative ease.

    Some say that spelling was not regularized until the advent of the dictionary, the first usually accredited to Dr. Samuel Johnson in the 18th Century, and since he had no dictionary to consult for correctness, all of the entries came from his head, an astonishing feat for one man,although his entries often reflected his personal biases, as in his entry for oats, which he defined as a grain eaten by horses in England and by people in Scotland.

    As to grammar, I always remember the comment of my favorite linguist and lexicographer, Bergen Evans, that if a double negative makes a meaning negative, a triple meaning should make it positive again. Works in algebra, but not in language.

    Lastly, Modern English has not finished its journey yet, and we have many, many usages and spellings that are still working their way toward acceptance. But unlike math, language is a living thing, and like all living things, it is constantly changing.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Perhaps I ought to note for other readers that you are a college professor of English, Bud, and I’m therefore especially honored to have your comments. I’m glad that you ended your interesting summary of the language by saying,

      Lastly, Modern English has not finished its journey yet, and we have many, many usages and spellings that are still working their way toward acceptance. But unlike math, language is a living thing, and like all living things, it is constantly changing.

      Relative to that I heard amongst the drone of television news today that four drones of the unproductive nation of Yemen, being low-level operatives of al Qaeda, had been droned. Hola! Yes, it is a new transitive verb, a new coining of this useful and hoary word which originated before the 12th century. I surmise that the drones probably did not even hear the drone of the drone before the missile struck. But forgive me. How I do drone on!


  7. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: An addendum: We know that Shakespeare spelled his own name at least four different ways. I picked the most popular spelling here. Bud


  8. Jim,

    Excellent post. I must admit, though, that I was never a good speller, so spell-check was a godsend for me.

    Of course, the meanings of words and their usage are also important. One does wonder whether young Hurley and others in his age group would understand such phrases as “acronymic substitution is supplanting cursive communication,” and “redolent of a general disaffection with rote learning.” I guess that just comes from maturity. You and I have plenty of that. Seventy-plus years is no match for a 16 year old — grammatically speaking of course.

    In any case, I still use my torn and ragged Strunk and White. I would even suggest that that little publication become a required appendage for every student taking English or any other course for which writing is an integral part.

    There is another book that came out a few years ago — Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss. This is also a great reference. Commas do matter. In fact, in as DiatribesAndOvations.com comments above, and as Ms. Truss writes, “Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.” Period. (However, I much prefer Victor Borge’s oral punctual marks. Sadly, I’m sure Master Hurley probably never hard of Victor Borge.)



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Messrs. White and Strunk are my long-time companions as well, Herb. I can not think of a more succinct nor memorable reference work. And Victor Borge, ah! What a genius he was with the words! Because of your comment I just looked him up. Did you know that the Danish Borge didn’t speak a word of English when he fled to America in 1941 just ahead of a horde of angry Nazi’s! He learned English from watching movies, it says! Makes me think of Joseph Conrad, another towering master who learned as an adult. Thanks for that memory. 🙂


  9. Jim,
    I wrote a note to a friend expressing sadness that his grandmother was in a comma. He wrote back a few days later to say that she was no longer in a comma, but had lapsed into a semi-colon.


  10. henrygmorgan says:

    Herb and Jim: When I was teaching at the U. of Colorado in the sixties, Strunk and White was the only textbook used in Freshman English classes. You are both right, in my opinion, to name it the very best. I especially enjoy their tendency to illustrate incorrect usages by composing a sentence containing the incorrect usage by way of illustration. And its lists of Do’s and Don’t’s forms the best teaching device I’ve ever seen. Students loved the short, simple demonstrations. Bud


  11. shimoniac says:

    My personal peeves are rein/reign, flair/flare, worse/worst, your/you’re, and ringer/wringer. I recently read an article where every sentence had a homonym error of some sort. I couldn’t believe that a professional writer would submit something like that. It was funny in a horrifying way, I kept expecting the writer to suddenly switch to proper word choices and tell the reader that the preceding was a cautionary tale.
    Alas, no. 😦
    Also, I am currently reading a book, a mass-market publication, with some issues like this. Back in the day, twenty years or so ago, we had a specialist professional trained to deal with these issues; they were called the copy-editor. Copy-editors took what people wrote and corrected bad spelling, bad punctuation, bad grammar, awkward construction, misused homonyms, etc., etc. With spell-check though, bosses say, “A copy-editor is redundant and obsolete.”
    I agree that the problem with the inability to spell has been made worse by word processing spell-check programs. I also think that the elimination of rote learning has an impact.
    There is another dynamic at work, however, that people don’t seem to notice. That is that over the years it has become cool to be stupid. Stupid, ignorant, illiterate, unlettered, choose your term. The Bart Simpson T-shirt with the logo ‘Underachiever and proud of it’, is a symptom of the syndrome.
    Thirty, forty, fifty years ago people tried to achieve, they strived as high as they could, because they didn’t want to be seen as some drooling idiot. Today? People avoid anything which might tend to tax their brain.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      There is another dynamic at work, however, that people don’t seem to notice. That is that over the years it has become cool to be stupid. Stupid, ignorant, illiterate, unlettered, choose your term. The Bart Simpson T-shirt with the logo ‘Underachiever and proud of it’, is a symptom of the syndrome.

      Really? I’ve seen such T-shirts but dismissed them as fads or symptoms of teen-age rebellion. I suppose it might help explain how with high unemployment there can yet be a shortage of workers in STEM occupations. Other readers: do you think this is true? If so, what could cause this? What has changed since “back in the day”? Surely it’s not human nature.


  12. ansonburlingame says:

    An interesting exchange for this admitted “terrible speller” (and/or typer). I recently observed another exchange over the use of a term “Phu Khen Aviator”. It was written by a classmate and deemed inappropriate for “wardroom discussions”. Part of the resistance was because it was deemed both racist and bathroom humor. He was actually discussing his experiences fighting in Vietnam, as a Aviator, at least that was my intial thought!!!

    I for one do not know if Phu Khen is a place or the result of heavy “g’s” in an airplane!!



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.