Spelling out my issues with spelling

I have had enough comments about my spelling error to warrant an explanation on my thoughts and philosophy on spelling. You may or may not agree with me, but at least from here on out, we will all be on the same page. (I just realized that “on the same page” may not be an appropriate phrase, given what is going on with Congressional pages recently, but I trust you know what I mean.)

1. It’s all about the content

I am all about content. I’m not a huge fan of word processors because they distract people with all kinds of formatting and other nonsense. The focus becomes look and feel, and not content which is bad. When it comes to writing, I am the same way. I focus on content. Also, because I write as much as I do, and because I, like everyone else have limited amounts of time, I write fast and I willingly trade accuracy for speed. In other words, if making a few spelling errors allows me to write faster, then I will write faster and make the errors.

2. Pareto’s Principle

But why do I make the errors to begin with? Spelling should be second nature, something we learned in grammar school, right? Let me state for the record that I have always thought that teaching spelling in school is the dumbest thing in the world and a colossal waste of time. For that reason, it was the subject that I hated the most of all the subjects I took (with the possible exception of economics). I put very little effort into memorizing lists of words and their proper spellings because I realized that when I came to a word that I wasn’t sure about, I could always look up the spelling in the dictionary. (Why don’t I look them up in the dictionary, you ask? See #1 above.)

Spelling is too arbitrary for me. There are no hard and fast rules, and plenty of exceptions. It’s too complicated and I decided a long, long time ago that I wasn’t going to put effort into it. While I didn’t realize this back in grammar school, I was applying a variant of what is known at the Pareto Principle (the 80-20 rule) to spelling. (I spent 20% of my time on spelling, hoping to get 80% of the words spelled correctly. Actually, I probably spend far less than this, but you get the idea.)

3. Rote memorization vs. critical thinking

Word processors and even some text editors now check spelling as you type. When I use these tools, my spelling is better and I rely on them for correctness. Thus on my story manuscripts, email message, documentation (at work), correspondence, etc., spelling errors are almost non-existent. The reason they appear in my blog is that I use LiveJournal to type in my blog entries, rather than a third party tool. Since LJ doesn’t check spelling as you type, and since checking the spelling involves an extra step, I tend to skip that step (see #1 above).

One could argue that this is a slippery slope. If we rely too much on technology our brains could end up worse off. Why learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide when you can use a calculator to get the answer? To this I would say that there is a significant difference between spelling and arithmetic. Spelling is completely arbitrary, follows few rules, and memorizing it is nothing more than an exercise in busy-work. Arithmetic, on the other hand, is universal, has a specific, simple set of rules, and is the basis for logic and critical thinking involved in higher mathematics (induction, for instance). Thus, while I rarely put effort into my spelling and when possible, allow word processors and text editors to correct spelling for me, I am the opposite with arithmetic. On any given day, a look at my desk at work will reveal pages of handwritten calculations, graphs, numbers. I like doing the math by hand (without a calculator) because I feel that it helps to sharpen by brain. It adds value. Spelling does not.


These reasons may not satisfy anyone, but they satisfy me. (Certainly, they wouldn’t satisfy my grammar school teachers.) I try not to be hypocritical, when, on those rare occasions I find a spelling error in someone else’s writing. Usually I ignore it and focus on the content of what was written. Some people will argue that my poor spelling is due to the fact that I am lazy. I say it’s due to the fact that I just don’t care. If I convey my meaning I am happy, and besides, my spelling is correct when it counts. It certainly doesn’t count in an online journal. In this day and age, spelling has no practical educational value. Whether or not educators will admit it, we learn to spell when we learn to read. Rummaging through lists of spelling words each week improves our spelling in diminishing returns compared to what our spelling would be if we didn’t go through those lists. It is an exercise in rote memorization that adds little or no value to our education. Compare that to arithmetic, which provides the foundation for logic and reasoning. Do spelling errors annoy people? Yes, they certainly do, although I challenge anyone to give a good explanation as to why they feel annoyed by spelling errors? Is it because you are annoyed that the person didn’t take the time to learn something meaningless? They they are not following the rules? Certainly errors in spelling don’t annoy people as much as errors in arithmetic. Dollars to donuts you will be much more upset upon receiving your receipt from the grocery store if you were over-charged for your sirloin, then if the word “sirloin” is misspelled.