Correct Spelling

Two quick very true, very embarrassing stories. As an undergraduate, I once found myself in the campus pub being gently corrected in the middle of a profound philosophical argument by a sorority girl, who explained to me that the word I was trying to use to devastating effect was, in fact, “construe”, not, as I seemed to think, “conscrue”. That same year, no doubt, I tried to shock a professor by comparing consciousness to an ordinary bodily process like, “e.g., a bowl movement”. He did not fail to point out in the margin that my attempt to be witty had been undermined by my inability to spell. Some words we learn the hard way.

Orthography is the study of the right (ortho-) way of writing (-graphy) words. In my two examples, I understood the word I was using correctly, but I did not know how to spell it. It is possible that, though I had said it often, I had never in my life written the word “bowel” before using it in that paper. And I may never have “construed” anything explicitly before I heard — and did not read — my professor doing so. My error stemmed from what Steven Pinker has called the Igon Value Problem: “when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert.” In fact, this reminds me of a third embarrassing tale: the time I wrote about “Göbbel’s” (!) incompleteness theorem on the basis of lecture by W.V.O. Quine that I had attended. I really did mainly squander my learning opportunities as an undergraduate. Words aren’t just sounds we make to sound smart, they are signs we read to actually become smart. Learn how to spell them.

I know this is tough love. I hope it’s clear that I have a great deal of empathy for undergraduates and their struggle to learn the curriculum. My point is that there are lots of lessons hidden in seemingly trivial details. Sometimes spelling is a clue to a word’s etymology, sometimes a way to avoid confusing it with another. Do you mean “free reign” or “free rein”? Are you “the sun and the air” or “the son and the heir”?

And then there’s the spelling of names. I mentioned Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions the other day and the auto-generated closed captioning on the YouTube video apparently heard me say “Thomas Coons”. If I had been teaching the philosophy of George Berkeley, it would no doubt have captioned it “George Barclay”. If your discipline is organized around the works of Barbara Czarniawska (who my browser can’t even spell) or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (who it actually can!) you’re going to have to take spelling seriously. Even relatively simple names like Bourdieu or Ricœur are worth learning well if you’re going to be using them often.

Students sometimes ask whether “spelling counts” and, of course, it matters less and less as spellchecking becomes better and better. But poor spelling can reveal that you’re not very familiar with the material you’re so confidently holding forth about. By the same token, taking the time to look closely at how big words are put together at the level of the letter is actually a good, if very simple, way to build some intellectual confidence.

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