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The Obsolescence of Spelling

Spelling is becoming a lost art in our modern world. Weekly spelling tests, formerly a staple in an elementary student’s academic diet, have been rendered useless by technology. Microsoft Word has a spell check feature to point out and correct errors as you make them. When texting, an activity that encourages brevity and misspellings, there is no need to be perfect; just start typing a word and the auto correct feature will complete it for you. While it may not be the word you intended to use and it may not convey your message accurately, it will be spelled correctly.  There are flaws in every system.

In ancient times few people learned to read and write. Individuals who possessed these skills were revered and held most of the power. People who couldn’t read or write were often duped out of their money or property. Oh, how times have changed. Now, there is no glory in being a good speller. It’s not something you can boast about on a resume. Unless you are the winner of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, it won’t earn you any money. No one dumps Gatorade on the winner of a spelling bee then carries them from the stage on their shoulders as a crowd chants their name. There is a quiet dignity about being a good speller.

I’m not national spelling bee quality. In 7th grade, I was knocked out of our town-wide spelling bee when I misspelled the word hyacinth; a word I haven’t misspelled since that fateful evening. I’ll admit that I am a spelling snob, but I am selective about my snobbery. Spelling errors in text messages, e-mails and other informal writing don’t irritate me. Everyone makes typos or answers a message quickly without proofreading it. However, the words you use when writing a resume, business letter or tattoo should be spelled correctly. If you can’t spell the words you want to use, choose ones that you can spell, use spell check or ask a human who is a better speller than you. There is no shame in being a bad speller, but if you are, admit it and seek help. There are so many resources now available for those who are orthographically challenged.

Being a bad speller is not a crime unless you do what this woman did. In an effort to get some paid time off from work, she allegedly wrote a letter to her employer claiming it was an official letter from the court requesting her appearance for jury duty. When she substituted the words, trial, cited and manager with the words “trail”, “sited” and “manger”, the jig was up and she was charged with forgery.  To be fair, the words she allegedly wrote were spelled correctly. They were just the wrong words altogether.  I’m sure there is some computer program that detects this type of error, but proofreading what she had written would have been a good place to start. Having blind allegiance to spell check can sometimes backfire if you correctly spell a completely different word than the one you had intended.

Certain misspellings are socially acceptable. Businesses like Dunkin’ Donuts and ShopRite intentionally misspelled their names. I’m sure they have their reasons. Maybe it was cheaper to make a sign with fewer letters. Maybe they thought it sounded more marketable. Whatever the reason, it just perpetuates poor spelling.

Sometimes spelling mistakes leave a lasting impression. Recently, I was stuck in traffic behind a commercial truck for an auto body shop with the following words painted on it: “We buy used tireds, motos and junck cars.” This message wasn’t just painted on the back of the truck; it was also painted on the side. This gave me a good laugh, but I do not think that was the reaction the business owner had in mind when he paid money to have those words painted on his truck. Not long after that incident, I saw a sign etched into the window of a nail salon, “acrilyc nails.” Perhaps the owners of these businesses weren’t good spellers or maybe English is not their primary language, but the professional sign makers who painted those words ought to be able to spell. It is a skill necessary for their occupation. If you are going make a career of etching words into glass, painting them on buildings and trucks or tattooing them on people’s skin, those words should be spelled correctly. Carpenters follow the motto: measure twice and cut once. Sign makers should follow a similar one: check twice, paint once. Perhaps it is standard business practice to spell the words exactly as a client has provided them. Even if that is the case, don’t they feel compelled to correct the error, or, at a bare minimum, point it out to the client?

Please don’t get me wrong, English spelling is a nightmare. There are words that look the same, but sound different like good and food. Then, there are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently like to, two and too. As English evolved it sampled words from just about every language known to mankind. Sometimes the original spelling was kept. Other times it was Anglicized to suit the whims of whoever was in charge of making those types of decisions. Because of this, there are silent letters, irregular spellings, rules that govern spelling and just as many exceptions to those rules. With a language this inconsistent, errors are inevitable. The lessen two bee learned hear is that if ewe are righting something, fore the love of Dog, proofread and yews spell check.



** Many thanks to the ladies of frugalistadotcom and Earthriderdotcom for honoring me with the Versatile Blogger Award. Now that you are done reading this post, why not pop over to check out their blogs? **

About Paprika Furstenburg

I was born with an overly developed sense of humor and poor coordination. The combination of these two character traits has taught me humility and given me the perspective to find the funny in everyday experiences.

71 responses »

  1. Pingback: The Gifts That Keep On Giving – Search Terms | Good Humored

  2. I was a good speller until I lost the BEE with the word “surface.” But doesn’t the PH have the F sound? The words I still find confusing are the ones ending in “ent” and “ant”. Which is which I’ll probably never learn.


    • English spelling is ridiculously complicated with so many different ways to spell the same sound. You gave a perfect example, if “ent” and “ant” make the same sound, why couldn’t they just pick one and go with it? Despite your poor showing at your spelling bee, you seem to have done quite well for yourself.

  3. Pingback: Spelling Write « Roshrulez's Weblog

  4. No need to spell. They will have more than enough time to make up any mistake. 🙂

  5. Your reference to spelling words of a tattoo correctly had me laughing.
    One mistake that irks me that I see over and over again is the use of the word “their” when people actually mean “over there” or “they’re”.

  6. These things drive me crazy, too. Then again, if everyone wrote well, I wouldn’t have a job as an editor. 🙂

  7. I hate when you ask someone how to spell something and they say “Look it up in the dictionary”.

    I’ve been looking up how to spell phone for years under the “F”s, and don’t get me going on how to find Psycho under the “S”s 😀

  8. Great Post! I have a superstition with spelling that I was just thinking about writing about for one of my posts. As well, I do find it irksome when I go to read a blog and it is full of mistakes.

  9. Theodore Bikel said (in the musical Fiddler on the Roof) “If I was a young man.” Well, I am not. However, I do understand the challenges the new generation faces with antiquated English spelling in an age they have to communicate and pay by the character. So they use short cuts. To them it makes no sense to spell plumber with a B that is not needed and Island with an S (OK I just saved two characters). In the olden days we did as told, never to ask for an explanation, if you had the courage to ask, as my daughter would say “English is a screwed-up language.” No kidding! why do people drive on the parkway and park on the driveway? Explain this logic to a youngster and see the response.

    • You make an excellent point about the money-saving benefits of misspelling. Your daughter is right, English is a screwed up language, but we have to work with what we’ve got. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Hope you’ll be back again soon.

  10. Love this post!!! This has been a pet peeve of mine since I was a student in middle school. On Sundays, riding down route 22 with my parents, I would look at all the businesses who had incorrectly spelled words, write them down and call the businesses to alert them on Monday. Seen today on my ride home on a local pizza place banner for all to see, CHESSEBURGER and fries. Someone paid to have that sign made!

    • I LOVE that you took notes and called the businesses! It’s like you were the spelling police. What I can’t understand about misspelled professional signs is the fact that more than one person has perpetuated the error.

  11. Sometimes misspellings or word substitutions are the result of deep-seated psychological conflicts, i.e. the bald man writing “hair today, gone tomorrow….” (Well, what other kind of comment would you expect from me…. ;-))

  12. I am a terrible speller (right now I’m doubting the spelling of speller??). One of my many embarassing (need to look up embarassing . . . Did you mean: embarrassing) . . .one of my many embarrassing moments occurred (dang, need to look up occurred . . .oh good) when I sent an email to a professor (jeez. . .yay)of a programming class I was taking. I thought I would be clever and used the words bits, bytes, and atoms throughout the email. Sent it off and then sent it to a fellow classmate. My classmate wrote back to me and pointed out that instead of writing “atoms” (at least ten times in the email), I had written “adams.”
    This is why I don’t have a tattoo.
    Great post!

    • Your comment made me laugh out loud! You may not be a confident speller, but at least you recognize it and take the time to check your spelling. That makes you a conscientious (I had to look that up.) speller.

  13. Fun read! Your such a good writer but I had no idea your also a good speller, Paprika 🙂 Sorry — I couldn’t resist writing it that way because your/you’re is the spelling error that drives me insane!

    I have my own issues. I still have to pause whenever I have to choose between whose and who’s. And I can never write “anonymous” without first Googling its proper spelling.

    • Thanks, Angie! I’m glad you thought the post was fun. I think each of us has a word or two that is our particular bugaboo and a few errors that are our personal pet peeves. I always have to double check my use of it’s and its.

  14. Hear! Hear!! or would that be….Here! Here!! or…hr! hr!!
    I fear correctly spelled words are fast disappearing with text messaging!!

  15. Spelling, hell … it’s just a matter of time until we won’t need keyboards! That Apple B*tch, Siri, is going to take over the world. (Remember HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”? I think he was her grandfather.)

  16. Paprika, your spelling bee tale took me back to my own spelling bee experience as a young girl–I tripped up on “recommend.” As soon as I offered a second “c” I knew I was a gonner. Like you, I’ll never forget my spelling bee mistake!

  17. I loved your post and especially your conclusion. I´ve always been sort of a spelling “fascist”, but in French though,so it is nice to see I´m not the only one. keep making me feel good humored !

    • I’m glad my posts make you feel good humored. Thanks for your compliments. I struggled with the conclusion because I wasn’t sure if my readers would think it was funny. I’m glad so many did! It would seem that we can now form an international coallition of people who appreciate good spelling.

  18. This is a great post, and tells the sad truth of a society that doesn’t pay much attention to spelling anymore. But what’s the harm? Nobody gets hurt or anything – right? WRONG! Check out this blog for some very, very costly typos:

  19. I’m also somewhat of a spelling Nazi… I work as an Editor so I completely sympathise with the spelling-sensitive. Incorrect neologisms also burn me: I blogged about it here, if you care to check it out:

    Nice to stumble across your blog, by the way!

    • As an editor, I can understand why spelling errors and the misuse of language would irritate you. It makes your job that much more difficult. After reading all of these comments, I’m beginning to think we could do a series on punctuation, spelling and the abuse of the English language. I’ll be sure to check out the post you mentioned.

      So glad you stopped in to read and comment. Hope you’ll be back again soon.

  20. I can spell, this is nothing to do with intelligence or application my brain is just wired that way. I assumed that being a wide-ranging and voracious reader as I was growing up had had an impact upon this but my son reads with even more enthusiasm than I did and his rather random approach to spelling has not seen my predicted improvement. Clearly some people find it tricky and they shouldn’t be stigmatised for that, but I find it really irritating when it is implied (or even said outright) that this doesn’t matter and certainly, as you say, where producing something written is part of a person’s work requirement they should check and get it right. Not that I’m fussy or anything . . .

    • I agree with you that being a good speller doesn’t necessarily have to do with intelligence. Having a good visual memory is really the key. As you said, some brains are just wired that way. I’ve known brilliant people who read all the time and could not spell well.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  21. I proofread and edit postgraduate students’ dissertations before they submit them for examination, and feel similarly about bad spelling, confusing grammar and muddled punctuation.

    Sometimes, it’s as though my students have taken a salt-shaker with punctuation marks and sprinkled them all over their document.

    Mind you, our school system has been struggling for a long time, what with government interference, frequent changes to the curriculum, a lack of respect for teachers, and serious overcrowding in so many schools, never mind pervasive social problems such as gangsterism, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence…

    So it really isn’t all that surprising when a postgraduate student (who by that stage will have been in the academic system for at least 4 to 5 years) still cannot put together a cogent argument or submit a thesis that isn’t littered with blatant mistakes…

    • It’s sad to hear that your country is experiencing the same issues with education that we are here in the U.S.

      While I feel bad that you have to contend with poor punctuation, I love the image of a salt shaker distributing random marks of punctuation all over a page of writing.

      Thanks for joining in the discussion.

  22. Yes, yes, yes! Thank you. I’ve had it with the poor spelling. My kids will have homemade spelling tests if their school doesn’t give them.

  23. Oops…. just noticed I didnt write 60s.

    Lesson learned… Read others before posting mine!


  24. Thanks for the nod over to me!

    So thankfully, my children still have spelling tests. My son, 3rd grade, has weekly spelling tests and my daughter has vocabulary tests (6th grade).
    I too get irked by poor grammar, spelling and punctuation. I am not perfect, however, I am probably above average. Which is sad since I never won a spelling bee either. I misspelled, ‘stationery’. I spelled it with an ‘a’ and it was one with an ‘e’. I have never forgotten that either.
    My post on Do Toy Execs Think We’re Idiots expressed my dissatisfaction with poor word choices- Squishy Baff instead of bath. ARGH! Is nothing sacred any more in the English language??

    • I’m really glad I’m not the only one irritated by poor spelling. There seems to be a lot of us. I guess we all just cringe and suffer in silence when we see these errors. I absolutely hate it when businesses and toy manufacturers purposely spell the name of their business or product incorrectly, especially if they are marketing it to children. Seeing a misspelled word on signs, boxes and in commercials just legitimizes poor spelling.

      Thanks again for the Versatile Blogger nomination 🙂

  25. The word I misspelled in my elementary school spelling bee back in the late 60’s (gulp) was “irreparable”.

    Funny how you never ever forget the one you miss….even all these years later!

    I can’t remember what place (3rd? 4th? Other?) I got that year but I sure know that darn word.

  26. Reblogged this on Hiphopfish's Blog and commented:
    Very true and interesting.

  27. Did it hurt you to write this sentence? The lessen two bee learned hear is that if ewe are righting something, fore the love of Dog, proofread and yews spell check. LOL

    • It took me a few minutes to figure out all the homophones for that sentence and then not go back and correct myself on my final proofread. I thought it was a funny way to prove the point. Glad you thought so too.

      • I couldn’t help laughing when I read that last sentence, as I know it had to take an excruciating amount of effort to avoid correcting all those glorious examples in order to prove your point.

        My spelling death came at the expense of the word “cemetery”. That damn third “e” tripped me up, but I never forgot it again, and that’s no kidding. I was one of just three spellers remaining in a Regional contest, and I let an EASY word take me out of the running. I made it through perpendicular, segregationist, vociferously, sebaceous, disarmament, and incontrovertible, but then tripped over the word cemetery? Really? Seriously?

        I was so humiliated. H-U-M-I-L-I-A-T-E-D, humiliated. 🙂

      • Judging from the comments I’ve been reading, it seems like we may need to set up some sort of support program for those of us traumatized by our spelling bee experiences.

  28. When I was studying speech pathology in college we had to learn the Phonetic Alphabet. This alphabet works by spelling words the way they sound: not the way they’re spelled. But if we adopted it as our official alphabet we would have to change every typeset, word processor and printing shop by adding the symbols that indicate individual sounds.

    But, come to think of it that wouldn’t work, because southerners would spell one way, westerners another and easterners still another. We’ll have to keep this old alphabet and learn how to use it properly.


    • I had an IPA class my freshman year of college. Having everyone switch over to that would be a nightmare for all the reasons you mentioned. Regardless of their regional dialect, I think people would still spell incorrectly. It’s up to those of us who can spell to keep the art alive.

      Thanks for joining in the conversation. Glad to see you back again.

  29. English is my second language and I pay very close attention to my spelling, yes, I make mistakes but the funny thing is that my hubby always asks me for help with his spelling!!! When I learned English we pretty much only learned vocabulary for the first two years… that definitely helped a lot. 🙂

    • I admire anyone who learns English as a second language and masters the absurdities of our spelling rules. It’s funny that your husband asks you for spelling assistance. It confirms my belief that some people just have a better visual memory for words than others regardless of the language. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  30. Spelling was never my srognest subject. But Enlgish spelling don’t ask. Most pepole don’t pay attnetion to how words are spelled any hau, they are just reading the words and know wat thy are. So way bother (sory if some words are mispselled, don’t have a computer, and my spell checker is wathcing T.V)

    • Since you speak 3 languages you’re excused for your spelling mistakes in English. If you don’t have a computer, how did you send this message? 🙂

      • You are rigt. I do have a mahcine that lets me read and write emials, sometimes web pages also, this mahcine haz an abacus attached to it. (For ading and subrtacting) if you call this mahcine “computer” yes I do have one. But still no spell checker. So sorry.

  31. The amount of bad spelling in the world makes me want to cry.

    • It’s nice to know there are other people who feel this way. It’s sad that spelling is so bad it makes us want to cry, but at least we’re not alone. Maybe we can form some sort of good spellers support group.

      Glad to see you back again. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  32. These days, primary school teachers in many public schools are not allowed to give spelling tests and in the lower grades students are encouraged to use “invented spelling.” This is not corrected lest their delicate self esteem be bruised. Though this gives me fits, what pushes me over the edge is the pervasive misuse of apostrophes as in “Bat House’s For Sale” or this one, “during the 1960’s…” As far as I can tell there is neither possession nor a missing letter in either of these, yet I see them every day. They drive me to distraction.

    Thanks for fighting the good fight!

    • You are absolutely right about the issue of invented spelling. I understand about encouraging children’s exploration with the language and spelling, but at some point in their lives, they are going to need to be able to spell something correctly. Spell checkers are only effective if the word you have misspelled is close to the word you want. Even with that you still need to be able to pick the correct word out of a phonetic line-up.

      Let’s not even talk about punctuation. That could be a whole post to itself. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂

  33. Your blog reminded me of two things:
    (1) It took 5 tries in 5th grade before I spelled ‘appreciate’ correctly. Haven’t misspelled it since.
    (2) At the beginning of the year, I showed my 7th grade students signs with incorrect apostrophe use and poor spelling. One of my favorites was from a store promoting a shirt: “Love the one your with.” (should be “you’re). The other was a sign outside a motel promising “free wife” (meant “wifi”).
    Loved your story and thanks for the plug for my blog. 😉

    • I wonder how much business that motel got after they offered a free wife 🙂

      We once bought a pillow with a phrase embroidered on it in script. The phrase was supposed to be “Cats don’t have owners. They have staff.” We read it in the store, but it wasn’t until we got it home and put it on the couch that we realized it really said, “Cats don’t have owners. They have stuff.” It went back to the store the next day.

  34. So you probably know this about me already but I’m the worst speller (in English at least I do okay-ish except for the random misspell in German).

    However I completely agree, stuff that’s permanent etched onto bodies or business signs etc should be spelled correctly (same goes for official stuff).

    The great thing about my job is I get to dictate and have someone who’s way more qualified at spelling type my words of wisdom out.

    Although, weird things can happen without misspelling too. My father’s legal assistant (well his former legal assistant I should say) ended the letter with “I fade with my best regards” (fading in German also meaning your body decomposing) instead of “I remain with my best regards” (which is the German equivilant of the brief English “best regards”).

    – I guess this would have been hilarious if it wasn’t sent out to one of the higher ranking judges in the German judicial systhem… 😉

    I think it’s cruel they made you spell hyacinth b.t.w. vacuum would have been tough enough as far as I’m concerned 😉

    • Anyone who can speak, read and spell in more than one language gets a pass on spelling mistakes, so you’re in the clear. The misspellings can be amusing, but not if it’s going to a high ranking official. Yikes! Is that why she’s now his former legal assistant?

      After watching the National Spelling Bee for the past few years, I realize I got off easy with hyacinth. I couldn’t stand the pressure anyway. The words the kids spell on the national level are ridiculously hard.

      • Yes it is (well not the only reason), but don’t worry about her. She got a job as flight attendant (no kidding – I know we just talked about this in earlier posts, but what can I say truth is better than fiction at times) and she really loves it!

        My father was nice about the situation (and he should be too – after all it bypassed his schooled eyes as well when proof reading before signing off) and gave her 3 monthes to find a new job (full pay full benefits) – so this is actually a classic win-win situation

        If she falls in love with a millionaire and the airplane get’s highjacked and they have to land it on a tropical island and (and and and) then I guess it’ll almost be like one of those great hollywood classical movie moments – until then it’s a bit less funny than the mispelled tatoo and a lot less funny than the english teacher 😉

        So, just in case you’re wondering it’s around 3:45am and I’m tired-commenting again – friends really shouldn’t do that to one another so I’m going to give it a rest (Thank God I don’t have to get up at 5:30 tomorrow like someone else I know) 😉

  35. Love this post! I feel the same way about every point you made. This is very timely for me and I may be posting on something similar in the near future. My third-grade son won his class spelling bee recently, and this week he goes against the other winners for the next round. We’ve been practicing a lot. I’m a copy editor and both of my kids now point out errors they see in books. He’s a natural. Fingers crossed.

    • Thanks so much for reading and becoming Good Humored. Spelling bees are so much pressure. I watch the National Spelling Bee every year and marvel at the contestants’ spelling skills and poise. Sounds like you are keeping the art of spelling alive in your house. Good luck to your son!


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