Farhad Manjoo is of the mind that mockery of Donald Trump’s spelling mistakes exhibits elitism. It’s a vexed question that I’ve addressed once before in this forum. There’s no doubt that making fun of people for frequent spelling mistakes, not to mention numerous typos, can prove to be an unkind jab at a dyslexic person, or a crass implication that poor spelling equates to stupidity. It is also true that an exceptionally bright, well-read person can be a lousy speller, often because of one of several problems that fall under the umbrella of dyslexia. At the same time, those of us who are good spellers generally attribute our ability to having read a lot. And those of us whose published work, whether in an article or a tweet, contains few typographical errors will generally report that we proofread before releasing the material into the world.
So the question, when looking at poor spelling by someone not considered dyslexic or physically challenged, is whether the converse holds true: Can we attribute the poor spelling to lack of reading and the typographical errors to sloppy or absent proofreading? This question gets further complicated, of course, by the blunt axes of spell checkers and autocorrect functions that can leave even a gifted speller scratching her head and wondering if the past tense of lead really is lead rather than led. Manjoo writes, “You simply do not need to be able to spell as well as people once had to, because we now have tools that can catch and correct our errors — so it’s just not a big deal if, on your first draft, you write ‘heel’ instead of ‘heal.’” Maybe not — but he’s failing to account both for autocorrect bloopers and for a sloppy proofreader’s tendency to leave a word as is despite that red squiggle underneath it.
Another problem with Manjoo’s argument is that, as he writes, “Abraham Lincoln misspelled pretty much everything.” Mid-19th-century spelling was far from standardized; the texts Lincoln was reading were as apt to have variant spellings as his own writings. So while one can argue that rote memorization is an ineffective way to teach spelling, the fact remains that most of what we read today conforms to standard spelling norms. So if we’re trying to decide whether wide reading is not simply correlated with good spelling but actually results in it, the example of Lincoln proves little.
Manjoo also focuses on so-called textese, the kind of typing that we all perform when sending text messages or posting on social media. Again, his argument seems just slightly off the point. He writes, “There’s little evidence that how one types on electronic media has much to say about how one functions otherwise. One study, in fact, showed that kids who frequently used ‘textese’ tended to be better at grammar than those who didn’t.” I read the study to which Manjoo links, and its conclusion makes common sense: to be able to elide words in a sentence and get your point across clearly, you need to be on top of the ways in which grammar and syntax function. But that’s an entirely different argument from the claim that neither spelling nor typographical errors are meaningful.
If a nondyslexic, nondisabled, educated person spells abominably and lets stand ridiculous typos (“covfefe”), should we conclude that they are either ill-read or sloppy or both? Despite disagreeing with most of what Manjoo claims, I’m not prepared to make this assertion. I’m suspicious, first, because it awards points to me that I doubt I deserve. (Who doesn’t like to think they’re well-read and meticulous?) Second, so much of how we process and retain information remains unknown; there could be other issues with spelling that we’re not aware of. Finally, Manjoo is right that the ways in which we produce and consume text may be changing our relationship to standardized spelling. (I have referenced this shift obliquely in terms of the one- or two-word expression alright/all right.)
At the same time, I don’t think howls at Trump’s spelling are elitist. They signal the disconnect between what he is producing (generally on Twitter) and how he engages with the staff who are supposed to be advising him. More eyeballs, as we all know, mean fewer errors. Yes, there were bloopers in the Obama era too — but fewer, and generally of the sort that even many eyeballs could miss (Franz Fanon, anyone?). People laugh at Trump’s spelling errors because they conjure the image of the 3 a.m. president alone in his gilt bathroom, tweeting madly away without the sense or humility to ask for help when he doesn’t know or doesn’t spot something.
They laugh, too, because if you don’t laugh you’ll cry, and many of us are all cried out.