In Defense of Good Spelling

I did a quick Google search and confirmed my sneaking suspicion: Good spelling is no longer important in America.

Enter ‘”why good spelling is important” and you’ll see what I mean. Four entries are retrieved, and not a single one of them is truly a defense of good spelling.

Maybe it’s the fact that I won the spelling bee in elementary school–triumphantly taking home my very own hardback copy of a red fabric-bound Webster’s Dictionary— but I really do still believe that good spelling is important. I find people like Jeff Deck and his Typo Eradication Advancement League to be nothing short of heroic.

I know. I’m nerdy.

As I’ve been thinking about why good spelling is important, none of the predictable, conventional explanations seem too relevant anymore. One doesn’t necessarily need to spell well to communicate his or her message. In fact, the sad fact seems to be that few people notice or care when a word is spelled incorrectly. Increasingly, no one buys the argument that good spelling reflects anything important about one’s intelligence, and few people accept the idea that good spelling indicates, at the very least, that the writer isn’t lazy and can at least run a document through spell check.

But here’s why I think good spelling is important. Good spelling affirms that you respect yourself, your reader, and your subject. Spelling well shows that you’ve taken the time to review your document, that you want to present your ideas in the clearest manner possible, and that you care about the reader’s standards (even if they’re low).

Above all, spelling well shows your respect for the power of language, its power to name and describe and explain. No, the world won’t fall apart (hell, it might not even notice) when you write “it’s” when you really mean “its,” but trust me, the world does become a little bit clearer when your spelling is as powerful and as precise as the message you want to convey.

For a few quick guides to common spelling errors–and how to avoid them–click here, here, and here.

Photo: dawn m. arfield (creative commons)

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Julie Schwietert Collazo

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4 thoughts on “In Defense of Good Spelling”

  1. I am an awful spealler. Totally crap. Mostly because I type superfast. I can’t live without spellcheck and I’m so glad mozilla has it built in!!!

  2. I’m in favour of good spelling but the “I can spell” triumphalism gets us nowhere. The complexity and irregularity of the English spelling system means that poor spelling is the norm. That might comfort Nomadic Matt. Given that no amount of teaching or drilling children is going to make an indent in the 20%+ of children who fail their literacy milestones every year what do you intend to do about it? After all we can’t go around with a dictionary or spell checker all the time.

  3. Hi, Nigel-

    Thanks for your comment. You’ve identified precisely why I think spelling is important–largely because it’s only just the first indicator of larger literacy problems– and I hope you don’t misread my post as a variation on the tired “I can spell” triumphalism– great phrase, by the way! You’re right; that kind of posture gets us nowhere.

    I was thinking more about people who do know how to spell and who have the resources available to them to check their written words before putting them before an audience. Mainly, I wrote this post from the perspective of an editor who reviews academic papers and articles for publication and who is constantly bowled over by what appears to be not a spelling problem, but a carelessness problem. To me, that kind of disregard for spelling is a disregard for the power of words.
    And that’s something that we can all work on a little bit more, I think.

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