The ‘Winners’

d84a3a1c787b467efef89ae73e08f80b_crop_northI didn’t plan to write a follow-up to my spelling-contest post, but reader response prompted too many thoughts to contain in a footnote.

First, by popular vote, the winners from my lists were loose as a misspelling of lose and definately as a misspelling of definitely. A note on each of these:

Sites abound for the loose/lose problem; there’s even a Facebook page. I admit, I find it odd that so many people truly misspell the common word lose. (By “truly misspell,” I mean I think it’s neither a typo nor a usage error.) But when I look more closely, the error makes sense. Lose violates two notions we have of standard spelling. First, the single o “should” be pronounced as in nose, pose, and hose. Second, the way it is pronounced accords with what we’ve been taught about a doubled o. Granted, a word like noose is comparable to loose in that both esses are pronounced as ess and not zee. So really, the speller is being asked to choose which “rule” the word violates — the rule for the vowel or for the consonant? As for the outraged cry, “How can they think this is the same word?,” consider all the homographs we use without thinking twice about it:

The wind at my back / I wind the clock.

Lead poisoning is serious. / He leads the pack.

Give me my bow and arrow. / He took a bow onstage.

If someone thought lose and loose were homographs, they would follow the same pattern.

Definately (which, as many pointed out, spell checkers often “correct” to defiantly) is more of a puzzle. In some regions, the word may be pronounced with a short a sound in the third syllable, but I don’t think that accounts for the error. Perhaps it’s just the strange look of those two i‘s. There’s some comfort in knowing that definately tops the list of misspelled words in Britain, too.

But what I pondered most, as I read through votes and suggestions, is what we consider a misspelling. One commenter pointed out that quiet, meaning quite, may be a typo. Despite my injunction against punctuation errors, several people resorted to the its/it’s problem, and that one, too, could be typographical error, at least in about half the cases. We are talking here about faulty (or nonexistent) proofreading more than spelling error.

Other suggestions for what I called Group A got me thinking about metaphor. I may be wrong about this, but I think the writers who refer to someone’s taking the reigns of a horse, or the writers trying to post a mute question, could genuinely believe that they are employing a metaphoric use. Do not the strips of leather by which you control the horse allow you to reign over the horse’s movements? Is not the question that we are deeming unnecessary a question that, in a way, fails to speak?

I am not suggesting that misspellers go through some process by which they arrive at a clever metaphor. They write the word incorrectly and move on. But given the way English works — just think of the last time you sailed through an interview — I would not be surprised if, confronted with their mistakes, many of these writers managed to mount a defense that depended on metaphor. I believe the commenter jamesgor made the same point when he observed that the mistake of writing principle when one means principal “retains a certain logic.”

I may be ungenerous when I observe that other errors that were suggested seem to me to fall into the further/farther camp; that is, the problem here is one of limited and confused vocabulary and thus a usage error rather than a misspelling. I’m not sure all undergraduate students know what a tract is, so I’m not surprised if they mention an independent soul’s taking a different tract. Nor may they understand a tack as anything other than a very short nail, so if someone takes a different tack (note the resemblance to taking a different tract), there’s no cognitive dissonance to be found.

Finally, some words we regard as misspelled may be eggcorns, as in the suggestion of including granite as a misspelling for granted because students will write of being “taken for granite.”  Does it matter whether we dub something a misspelling or not? To me it does, only because these gray areas reveal more about the way the mind fires or misfires than spelling vacuum with two c‘s and one u.

Returning to my lists and popular vote, I find a runner-up in lead as the past tense of lead, which actually makes sense, given the way English works elsewhere. Today I read, yesterday I read. Today I lead; yesterday I lead. Not to mention the metal that sounds the same as that mistaken past tense.

And in Group B, many pointed out the double-consonant problem in misspellings like transfered and (an addition to the list) accomodate. A few people noted wierd, and it is weird, isn’t it, that we don’t see that misspelling more often, given the “i before e” rhyme that most of us (including my sons, whatever you may think about the demise of spelling) learned in elementary school?

While conventional wisdom has it that good spelling emerges from wide reading, studies have shown that brain dysfunction may account for much poor spelling. Inventiveness, as suggested above, may take up the slack left by neurological glitches. And I am not ready to let spell checkers off the hook. When I asked an undergraduate class about the vast difference between the spelling I was seeing in online posts using classroom software and the spelling in papers composed using Microsoft Word, a collective groan went up. The classroom software, the students complained, had no spell checker. If they wanted the posts to look “right,” they had to compose in Word, get the spelling checked, and then copy into the online post.

To which I say: Let’s get a spell checker into the online posting system, and let it be a really smart spell checker that knows enough of the difference between principle and principal to query it. Proper spelling may be a symptom of something — but unlike the diligence associated with careful proofreading, it is not a virtue, no matter how many gold stars we give out.

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