Thursday, April 19, 2007

The real importance of spelling correctly

You know people who spell well, almost instinctively, and you know people who are just as intelligent but who can barely spell their own names. I don’t think there’s much correlation between spelling ability and intelligence or between spelling ability and success in life by any measure.

We still have a bias toward ensuring correct spelling in print, and that’s a good thing for us editors. Beyond that, English orthography is interesting in its own right, because all those odd spellings tell us a great deal about the histories and therefore the meanings of words as well as about the way words are related to each other.

But the real reason spelling is important is that if you type the wrong word into a search engine, you end up the wrong place. Yes, I know that Google has their “Did you mean” function for common misspellings, and that’s great. But–and I know this from the traffic logs on this blog–if you think amperes is spelled ampers, Google is going to send you here before it sends you to a site that explains electrical units. (I’ll save you the trouble. One ampere is equal to one coulomb per second. Aren’t you glad you asked?)

The symbol & is an ampersand. It’s pronounced “and” (which is what it means, of course). So “ampers &” (in the blog title) is pronounced “ampersand.” It’s my own private joke, and I don’t expect anyone else to get it. But if you came here looking for “ampers,” there it is.

The other search terms that lead people here all the time really aren’t about misspellings; they’re about a habit of using Google instead of a dictionary. Ready?

People come here to find out what a virgule is. A virgule is a slanted line (/) used to separate two words. Virgule is the French word for comma, and one of the uses of the mark is to replace a comma. That’s how it’s used in two places in the title of this blog. It is also used to replace the word or, as in “and/or,” which means, literally, and OR or. And it is used to separate lines of poetry when they are run together in a paragraph: Roses are red / Violets are blue. The virgule is different, semantically and typographically, from the solidus (shilling mark), which is used in the old-style representation of British currency amounts (Unicode ). The fraction slash ( ⁄ ), used for building piece fraction, is different, as is the division slash ( ∕ ). Both have negative side bearings so that a numerator and denominator overlap them, like so: 17137 (that was a fraction slash). The division slash can be used in general algebraic expressions (miles ∕ hour) instead of the fraction slash.

People search on Google to find out how to pronounce words. Every day I get at least one or two hits from people who want to know how to pronounce kiln or au bon pain). You wouldn’t think so, but it’s true.

Getting back to my point, if you can’t spell, it’s hard to look stuff up. If you can’t look stuff up, you’re at a disadvantage relative to people who can. So, for unexpected reasons, spelling matters.

Finally, if you want to look up the definition or pronunciation of a word, use a dictionary. I like OneLook,, and Merriam-Webster Online, depending on my mood and what I’m looking up.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

But Dick, you're much more fun to read than a dictionary is.

Dick Margulis said...

Awwww. Thanks, Katharine.

Anonymous said...

As Andrew Jackson is reputed to have said, "It's a poor mind indeed that can think of only one way to spell a word." That said, if you can't spell, you will have a really tough time doing a crossword puzzle.