Flirting With Perfection: Spelling It Out

We often dream of perfection, but we rarely, if ever, achieve it. There was one exceedingly minor business, in one all too brief period,  in which I did attain such heights: my spelling prowess in my early school grades. I do not know if I ever attained the competency levels of those who excel at the national spelling bees that continue to enthrall so many folks every year, but there was no doubt I was a contender. Classroom testing of spelling prowess was carried out by dint of the dreaded ‘dictation test’: our teacher would read out loud, first, a list of words to be spelled out, and then, a short passage. We listened and wrote.

Through, I think, the fifth grade, (after which such ‘dictation tests’ ceased), I maintained a perfect record in my spelling examinations. I did not spell a single word wrong. (I also never suffered a single spelling correction in any of my essay assignments–this record ran through my high school years.) Indeed, I was often puzzled by the fact that my classmates did not score similar grades. What was the problem–did they not know what the word looked in question like? My spelling prowess was not a secret; word of my never-ending stream of perfect scores in these tests was not slow in spreading among my mates–we were a nerdy bunch. Needless to say, I lapped up the ensuing admiration.

Interestingly enough, I only encountered spelling difficulties–of a kind–once I began using word processors. My physical connection with the medium of writing changed, rewiring my linkages to the written word. I was bemused by the number of typos I generated in my writing assignments in graduate school. (I had written with a fountain pen till my undergraduate days; something about writing with that implement had required a certain deliberateness which militated against the introduction of spelling errors.) Identifying and correcting these added labors to my writing that I was unfamiliar with.

The differences between the two modes of writing were many–perhaps too many to list here. Some were immediately relevant to my spelling difficulties, to the business of orthographic errors. In writing with a word processor, I interacted with a keyboard; my fingers found keys and transferred letters to the screen. In writing with a pen, I traced out the shapes of the letters, my hands pressing directly upon the surface of writing. A word processor always produced a printed draft that I read and corrected before handing in the final version; perhaps I grew careless, trusting myself to remove spelling mistakes from the final version. A fountain pen produced a near-final version in ink that was not easily or cleanly corrected; the tracings of my pen were infected with this awareness. (The introduction of spelling and grammar checkers in word processors might have made things worse for some folks, tempted now to plunge ahead and correct later as the offending words are flagged in rude highlights.)

The valorization of spelling prowess seems, for some reason, a curiously old-fashioned affectation. I’m not sure why. A misspelled word still seems an abomination of sorts.

3 thoughts on “Flirting With Perfection: Spelling It Out

  1. I suspect the original if not deepest cause of the “abomination” (in the standard case) comes from the idea that there was less than expected or due attention paid to the work at hand.

    Did you attend a Catholic school? I thought only Catholic school veterans entertained such thoughts. Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but I’ve witnessed, with some distress, the ability of my students to spell correctly take a precipitous fall (and not from a pinnacle of mastery). If more than anecdotal, I want to lay blame on the slippery slope of new communication and social media technologies, but of course that could be wrong (It may stem, say, from recent pedagogical philosophies and methods; or perhaps both in collusion!). My dear wife, who works with medical professionals and who is not herself a great speller nonetheless is appalled by the spelling errors of her colleagues in both informal and (less excusable) formal paperwork. What is more, when she brings it to someone’s attention, they wonder why anyone should express concern or care about such things: how quaint if not silly!

    It’s laborious–and may be another ‘curiously old-fashioned affectation’–but I write everything first in pencil (I like to erase my errors…as if they never occurred), reading aloud so as to catch spelling and other compositional mistakes and only later commit to word processing (I’ll still edit at that point but the bulk of same has already been accomplished).

    1. Patrick,

      I first attended air force schools for eight years, then an Anglican school for two, and then finally a ‘regular’ public school. I think just being on keyboards does something to our spelling. And of course, I think we rely too much on spell checkers. As for ‘abominations’ – it was almost as if the word was misshapen, freakish. I can’t really explain my aversion.

      I should perhaps write more offline, and then transfer to the word processor but I almost never do. I’m not sure this has worked out well for me.

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