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Overhypoed Typos

To spell-check or not to spell-check? Many people would find this question absurd: Of course you run spell-check on anything longer than a text message. Take some pride in your work! But I wandered away from that moral high ground recently after fiddling around with software called Lingofy that lets you run style-guide checks on your writing using The Associated Press Stylebook (or a style book of your own making).

It was tempting for me because I write for both British and American publications, meaning I’m in constant danger of filing stories with punctuation on the wrong side of the quotation marks, capital letters where there should be lower-case ones, abbreviations that ought to have been spelled out, etc etc. Or rather, etc., etc.

And yet after some experimentation, I decided against using the software. I hadn’t realized before what pleasure I get learning, memorizing, and employing the rules myself. I also figured that, even if I’m not as thorough as Lingofy would be at making sure I’ve used correct AP style, I’ve got real-life editors backing me up. If they huff and puff over having to fix the errors I fail to catch, surely they’re missing the forest for the trees. …

And then it struck me that this might be the same logic employed by people who forgo spell-check—the brilliant if distracted professors, the hard-hitting but time-pressed reporters. And maybe—despite what I’ve long thought—they’re not wrong. Does a clean email represent a clean mind or a mind preoccupied with the wrong details?

There’s also, of course, the issue of spell-check as social-suitability check. Presumably neither the professor nor the reporter needs to prove himself through his spelling. Others often do, which is why spell-check is part of career office creed. But even here I wonder if companies and universities are focusing on the wrong things.  I recently interviewed a recruitment expert about trying to get people from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds into white-collar jobs, and he pointed out that many stumble because they chew gum in the interview, or don’t wear a tie, or send a cover letter with a spelling mistake in it. Given the tide of applicants, HR teams and admissions officers alike need filters, and those little mistakes can be used as easily spotted, easily defended deal breakers.

At the same time, the recruitment expert complained about a general deficit of really good, high-quality job candidates available—the much-discussed skills gap. And professors complain that students attending Ivy League universities aren’t ready for real learning. I’d venture that if we stop ruling out people for the little things—no matter how uncomfortable that makes us—we might just tap an overlooked vein of talent. I’m not suggesting we lower the standards; I am suggesting we change them.

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