Spelling: So You Wanna Be An Author

December 31st, 2013

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. Mine was very nice, thank you very much. I had my family gathered in one spot for an appropriately lavish feast, and that was all I wanted. It was a bonus that there were no sports of significance on the Idiot Box, so the male half of the species were grudgingly held captive. Much to their consternation, they were required to actually socialize.

I’ve made some progress on Chapter 13, but not as much as I would have liked. I can blame Mother Nature rather than my typically reluctant Muses. Ice and snow intermittently took our electricity away. It was pointless to do anything requiring electricity. Now it seems power is back for good, so I’ll dive back in tonight.

An email letter from a reader – who shall remain nameless, but she knows who she is  — got me thinking about spelling and grammar when writing for public consumption, and some of those rules that make the English language even harder to understand and work with than it is when left alone. Thinking about it sent my mind down one of the many internal goat paths available for it to explore. It’s probably not normal for someone to spend New Year’s Eve ruminating on spelling and grammar, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that observation. So, feeling somewhat lazy, with my wife half asleep with a glass of fizzy grape soda as a wine substitute in her weak grip, I decided to run with a rule that irritates me.

The most asinine language arts rule I was ever taught was the spelling mnemonic "I before E except after C." It’s weird that such madness could get enshrined as a rule resistant to either educators or bureaucrats. Yet by eighth grade, we’ve all at least heard it. It reigns supreme despite being the height of counterfeit aids to learning. It’s a heinous educational sin.

Alright, how many words in that paragraph? 62 for those who don’t want to count. How many violations of the I before E rule? I’m not telling. If you’re not sure, drop me a line and I’ll tell you. Relatively speaking, there are a lot. Of course the paragraph is silly, but it’s grammatically correct and structurally sound, so it works as an example — besides, it’s the best I could do off the top of my head while sitting here at the computer on New Year’s Eve. For the record, the British have expunged the rule from their educational rule book (I think they have a Ministry of Stupid Language Rules).

When I was in elementary school, every week our teacher would give us a list of 10 words we had to learn to spell. The following week, she would give us a test on those words. By Fifth Grade, the words we had to spell were invariably those that, in the eyes of an 11 year-old, didn’t follow any discernible rule, words such as "thought" and "would". I vividly remember having a moment of utter brain lock over the word “caught”. I knew she wanted the “I caught a cold” variant, and I knew how to spell it. Somehow, it got diverted along the way when I tried to retrieve it. I finally shrugged and wrote “cot.” I suppose I could have argued that some allowance should have been made for the fact that “cot” was a perfectly valid word, but I just sucked it up.It was a fine example of a word that lived by its own personal rule, and I was not in on the secret.

Her point in all this? The only rule when spelling English is that there are no rules. Spelling English is not easy. I’m not sure that it’s even taught anymore, what with the ubiquity of spell check programs and instantaneous online resources like Dictionary.com. If that’s true, it’s sad. It’s like letting teens take their driver’s license test without taking a Driver’s Ed course because they’ve played video games since birth. Taught or not, it ought to be a rule that anyone who writes for public consumption must pass a basic spelling competency exam. It’s important to remember that spelling in private emails doesn’t count. I don’t grade emails for spelling and grammar. It only counts when you’re trying to get me, or most potential readers, to peruse a story you’ve written.

Pick a random story on any internet story site, and the odds are you will find at least a handful of misspelled words, but likely as not you’ll find the writer couldn’t spell CAT if you spotted him or her the C and the T. Personally, I don’t care how hard it is to learn how to spell correctly. There is no excuse for more than the occasional typo when it comes to spelling for public consumption. Turn on your spell check! When a little red line appears under a word, it’s misspelled. Right click the word, and the damned program will even try to give you the correct spelling. Granted spell check is hardly infallible (though a good starting point), but there are back-up resources for those times you’re not sure: Online dictionaries, real dictionaries, editors – you know, those fine people who actually paid attention in spelling class, and who now volunteer their services at no cost to the author.

With all these resources, incorrect spelling in a story is inexcusable. And yes, it does matter. Consistently misspelling words shows you don’t give a shit about your story. If you don’t give a shit, why should I? If you can’t be bothered to make an effort with such annoying details as correct spelling, why should I be bothered with making an effort to read your story?

Always remember, wannabe writers, it’s your responsibility to make sure whatever you’re trying to convey to me the reader is clear. It’s not my job to decipher your gibberish to figure out what the hell you’re trying to say.