Spell-check at root of Americans' spelling deficiencies

WASHINGTON — Did you know Americans can't spell competently? It's true. They spell it "competantly."

Ha-ha. But, seriously, we don't know how to spell, and this deficiency is getting worse. A few weeks ago, a study came out showing that a shockingly high percentage of adults were stymied by such common words as "calendar," "accommodate," "questionnaire" and "definitely." The results were embarrassing (a word that, as it happens, 28 percent of Americans cannot spell).

The news release for the survey blamed this regrettable situation on cell phones, the use of which encourages semiliterate text messaging shortcuts 4 u 2 use.

What to do about this spelling problem? The company that conducted the survey suggests the more widespread use of spell-check, which is not surprising because the company that conducted the survey sells spell-check software. That company is WhiteSmoke Inc.

This excited me. If you don't know why it excited me, that is because you are not a hostile, opportunistic humor columnist who thrives on exposing corporate hypocrisy.

So, I contacted the PR guy, who put me in touch with Hilla Ovil-Brenner, chief executive officer of WhiteSmoke. She called me from Israel, where she lives.

Me: I notice you blame cell phones for our lamentable inability to spell. I think you forgot to mention one other factor.

Hilla: Okay. What's that?

Me: Spell-check! Spell-check is a demonic tool that has reduced us to a nation of spelling illiterates. No one needs to know how to spell anymore because the computer does it for us. Why learn whether "embarrass" has one R or two if every time you misspell it the computer automatically corrects you? These days, people think they are good spellers if they can misspell a word closely enough to the real spelling so that spell-check can figure out what they probably meant to type.

Your solution is not addressing the problem; it's contributing to the problem by coddling poor spellers. It's like trying to address the prevalence of drunk driving by putting big, fluffy bumpers on our cars. It's like trying to address the epidemic of obesity by making toilet seats the diameter of garbage can lids.

So, ah, I was just wondering if you agreed with me about all this.

Hilla: It is genius that you say that. These are my thoughts, exactly.

Me: Because, as far as I am concerned, as a purveyer of spell-check, you are a beast in human form, and . . . wait. What did you say?

Hilla: I agree with you.

Me:

Hilla: Yes. It's a pity. Children aren't learning to multiply because we have calculators to do that for them. Spell-check is more or less the same phenomenon. It's not a good thing, but spell-checkers have become a necessity just like calculators have. So if there are going to be spell-checkers, we thought we should make one that is the best there can be, which is what we have done. WhiteSmoke is the most sophisticated, contextual spell-check available.

Me:

Hilla: And with the obesity example, I agree with you, too. But I don't think we are contributing to the problem. What we are doing is the equivalent of realizing that if people are fat, we can make stylish clothes to fit them, to make their lives a little better.

Me: Lady, you are very, very good.

Hilla: Thank you.

Me: You looked up my columns online. You know what I do, and you were ready for me.

Hilla: Yes.

Me: You Israelis!

Hilla: Indeed. Maybe we can meet some day.

Me: I'd be honored. Meanwhile, I have secretly hidden a misspelled word in this column. This will force people to read the column twice, without the benefit of spell-check.

Hilla: Very good.

Me: Thank you.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.

Spell-check at root of Americans' spelling deficiencies 05/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:37pm]

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