Bad Spelling: Why?
August 19, 2005 8:40 PM   Subscribe

What makes someone bad at spelling?

Why are so many intelligent people such bad spellers? I'm not talking about typos, but the phenomenon whereby people who read a fair amount (and therefore look at correctly spelled words all the time) cannot remember that there is no "a" in sentence. Is it inattention? Is it a different way of thinking about words? Is it all an evil plot? Is it too much phonics instruction? Do you notice a that bad spellers share certain traits? Please help me understand you.
posted by dame to Society & Culture (44 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've always thought it's because some people's language is rooted in auditory thought, and so to them it's more important for their communication to "sound proper" than to "look proper". However this is just a pet theory of mine... and I have nothing to back up this theory, which is my theory, and belongs to me and I own it, and what it is too. Spot on, Chris.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:44 PM on August 19, 2005

When you read you don't read the whole word, letter by letter. To a degree, you recognize the shape of the word and the context it is in.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 8:46 PM on August 19, 2005

I have no idea why, but I'm one of those people. I read a lot, I have a high IQ, I have a college degree, I'm pretty good at paying attention to details, and I even like grammar; however, I suck at spelling. I can usually tell if I've spelled a word wrong because it just doesn't look right, but I also won't know how to spell it correctly. In fact, I have a box on my personal portal page because I use it that often. I would say I look up at least 3 words a day.

It could be a phonics thing. One word that used to always trip me up was ridiculous -- for some reason I think it should have an 'e' in it, probably because of the way I pronounce the word.

I'm interested to see what other people think about this topic :)
posted by geeky at 8:47 PM on August 19, 2005

you know, I used to be an entirely incapable speller -- failing spelling tests left and right, and definitely blowing every "rhyme" test that came my way. i was in kindergarten, but having been put in an "advanced reading class" since I already knew how to read, i didn't learn how to read "with phonics" like the rest of the kids, so rhyming was an utter mystery to me (and oddly enough, i later had trouble with proper pronunciation, a difficulty that persists to this day -- for example, i'll say "in-so-maniac" if I don't correct myself before thinking how someone should actually say "insomniac". Or ISELLTOWN instead of Isleton.*) At some point in first grade something just fucking clicked, and I never misspelled anything again, except for some words which I have continual trouble with (few and far between, and my guess is that everyone else actually spells them wrong). I can't really describe what it was, but it was something like when I figured out what the fuck was really happening with division, if that helps. I usually just notice if a word is wrong (which sometimes leads to second-guessing myself, but usually I'm right). I attribute it to years and years of standardized testing.

* of course, it's possible I'm just retarded. When anyone points it out I berate them for making fun of my speech impediment.
posted by fishfucker at 9:00 PM on August 19, 2005

I, like geeky, also can't spell, and like geeky I sometimes spell things the way I hear them, but even more messed up. For example, as a child I heard Africa as af-RE-ka, and wanting to get that E sound would spell it Aferica. it makes no sense, and the 'e' is in the wrong place for how I heard it, but I wanted an 'e' in the word, and it looked good to me there.

I like to think that there are levels of dyslexia, and that some of us just can't form a good mental map of how a correctly spelled word should look, and can accept any strange spellings when the misspelled word looks similar to the proper spelling.

At least, that's the excuse I use.
posted by jazon at 9:03 PM on August 19, 2005

fishfucker: your story is the same as mine, nearly word-for-word. I won't bother telling it again, but give a 'me too' to this thread instead.

But do I have to say "I'm the same as fishfucker"? That's just nasty ;-)
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:04 PM on August 19, 2005

I can't remember words that I don't know how to spell. In a way it's baffling to me that people can remember a word, yet still spell it incorrectly. Yet obviously they can. I think that ruminating over this fact was probably one of my first forays into neurological thinking.

I still don't understand it: but apparently different brains use different strategies to lexicate. I could maunder on endlessly about my pet theories, all of which are entirely evidence free, but that's probably best done before I open the bottle of white wine, which means not tonight.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:16 PM on August 19, 2005 [2 favorites]

is saying "dyslexia" a cop-out? It runs in my family; though I'm a good speller (mostly) several of my kids and my sister's kids have been diagnosed as dyslexic by educational therapists, despite being high-IQ.

As far as I can tell, it is genuinely an inherited trait, not deriving from any particular educational method - our children who have it have had quite varied different schoolings.
posted by anadem at 9:24 PM on August 19, 2005

Response by poster: Ikkyu, you're the brain man. Please spout your theories!
posted by dame at 9:39 PM on August 19, 2005

My mom and my uncle (who were twins) were both literate people who could not spell. Except that they could, as long as they weren't thinking about it. It was such a self-defeating thing for both of them... I personally witnessed times when they were spelling a word correctly, but they'd always ask, "Is that right?" If anyone confirmed that the word was right, they started mis-spelling it straightaway, and that was it for life. The same thing would happen verbally... "pacific" instead of "specific," that kind of thing. I think they did it out of low self-esteem, which both of them had in spades (one committed suicide). So the misspelling thing could definitely be a kind of self-sabotage.
posted by BoringPostcards at 9:58 PM on August 19, 2005

Auditory and visual learning style definitely has something to do with it. My sister did a Masters of Education in the area actually, but I haven't been able to absorb that much detail from her... I am a diagnosed dyslexic, I think my 'problem' is that I am on the auditory side. In general though, dyslexia seems to be a catch all for virtually any learning disability.

There is a certain aspect that is care and interest based. You know how some people say "I just can't do math"? Pretty much like that. I spent many years just not caring about spelling and punctuation... I am starting to care more, but I'm pretty sure any improvement is marginal at best. I notice errors and wonder "Have I always done that!"

ikkyu2, your thinking process baffles me!
posted by Chuckles at 10:04 PM on August 19, 2005

It doesn't seem to be an IQ thing, but rather a patience and practice thing. It's all about sounding out the word, every last syllable. Note that this is the same thing that is going to slow down typists -- the flow has to be automatic and that means sounding out the word in your head before your fingers get there, if the word is not totally familiar through repetition already. (re-pe-tition)

People who don't say a word correctly are, for the most part, not reading it syllable by syllable either. (eg: the oft-noted "nucular") And then there is just a tendency to be lazy and follow easy vocal patterns (it's "sherbet" not "sherbert").

And the more practice you get at paying attention (not just being exposed) to how words are spelled, the better you get because you become familiar with various strange spellings rooted in other languages -- which is why spelling bee contestants want to know the root language of a word they are attempting to spell.
posted by dreamsign at 10:32 PM on August 19, 2005

I'm with ikkyu. I've always been a super-speller by nature. I just grok the word and its spelling all in one unit. Some things will slow me down, like a word that has a pair of letters in one syllable while another syllable has a single letter that could also be pronounced the same way if doubled (for instance, parallel). My father thinks the same way I do but has the problem with ie/ei. I guess in both of our cases it's a visual learning style, and the features of the words we are hazy on are the ones we speed over. Similarly, I can't really remember a word in a foreign language unless I've got a mental picture of what it looks like written down - which is why I only know two words of Korean even though the deli lady has tried to teach me many more - the ones I remember are the ones I've seen transliterated into roman letters.
posted by matildaben at 10:52 PM on August 19, 2005

My husband is a bad speller, he says he can't see the word in his head, and he hasn't memorized everything, so some words are always wrong. My brother had a learning disability such that he couldn't recognize a word even if he had seen it over and over. He still spells "creatively", even though he can read well, now.
posted by slimslowslider at 12:22 AM on August 20, 2005

Sounding it out? What? This does not work for SO many words.

This isn't a scientific answer either, but I blame it partially on English having spellings that don't always go with "how it sounds". Especially vowel sounds. We have a ton of vowel sounds, but only five vowels. People can pronounce these words differently depending on what region you're in. Even though there are spelling rules, there are also plenty of exceptions and the rules get pretty frickin' complicated.

As for me, I consider myself a good speller but the vowels kill me sometimes. Such as sentence/sentance. Sounding that out does not work because to me they could be said the same way. I basically had to train myself: "Sentence has an E instead of an A. Sentence has an E instead of an A." I sometimes get tripped up on things like definite (defenite) and so forth. But it's pretty much always vowels that I get confused when trying to spell something.
posted by jetskiaccidents at 12:27 AM on August 20, 2005

Related Metatalk discussion.
posted by Smart Dalek at 1:22 AM on August 20, 2005

I used to be an excellent speller (Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee and all) but years of reading incorrectly spelled words online has really weakened my skills. I've caught myself typing "docter" and "seperate" recently. Which is weird for me, because I used to be able to easily correct a misspelling of, say, staphylococci. I drop letters a lot, too. Basically, I've gotten damned lazy since I started doing 90% of my reading online.
posted by xyzzy at 1:29 AM on August 20, 2005

"It could be a phonics thing."

Sounding it out? What? This does not work for SO many words.

Some recent scientific study has shown that teaching children to read phonetically (the sounds of individual letters to build syllables, then syllables to build words) is the most effective method in use in the UK. I learnt to read this way, but many of my friends did not. I think there is a difference today between the approaches I take to reading and spelling words, and the approaches my friends take. To some extent I'd say I was at a huge advantage at reading/spelling new words, but theoretically could have been at a disadvantage at spelling already known words had I not gone on to be a relatively keen reader.

Now I wasn't there when my friends learnt to read, and they don't seem to recall any particular procedure. My Mother is something of a specialist in child learning and there's were not. When I encountered a new word if I took a wanton swing at its pronunciation my mother would remind me to build the pronunciation by pronouncing it a syllable at a time (after I'd nail the letters of the alphabet, of course). I am guessing here, but I think my friends would take a wanton swing and their parents would tell them how the word should be pronounced. My friends seem to have a database of what words look like. They other recognise a word or they do not.

Now with the example of ridiculous above, I'd say I am more likely to misspell it than my friends are because I am more likely to revert to first principles for the spelling and build it bit by bit. My friends, on the other hand, will know what this word looks like through sheer experience. In reality, I know precisely how to spell ridiculous because, having misspelled it, I have since added it to my (much smaller) database of words I know the spelling of. My database doesn't need to be so big because in many many cases the phonetic approach has been adequate and I know from experience I am not spelling such words incorrectly. Where I don't know a word and my friends do, though; it is possible to compare the two schools of thought as I have done here without me cheating by adding supplementary knowledge.

In the case of a new word I watch amused as friends of mine make attempts at its pronunciation. I'm not laughing because they're stupider than me (they're not) but in wry amusement that in this instance their method is letting them down. If the word has, say, six syllables or more they seem to look at the word, search for a match in their database, fail, and then take some random attempt at the pronunciation based loosely on the letters they see before them. Letters and syllables can appear in completely the wrong order. I am in a much better position to guess at the pronunciation by sounding it out phonetically and adding subsequent experience into the mix (i.e. does it look greek in origin; is this a French word I'm pronouncing; oh look I know that suffix already).

As has been noted, sounding words outdoes not work in very many examples: which is why it's lucky you ostensibly stop using the phonetic method when you hit 8 or 9 years old (I guess) and supplement your knowledge with exceptions to spelling rules, etymology and unusual words. Hopefully one is an adult that continues to read and learn and supplement knowledge of language through experience and practice. Experience is the best way to master anything, but for children with no experience learning to read phonetically is very very effective and shouldn't be slighted out of hand.

A curious tick I have developed which may be as a result of spelling phonetically is that when typing quickly, I sometimes substitute one word for another similar sounding word (almost always spelt perfectly). I laughed at the example of ridiculous above, because I once inserted the word ridiculous into an IM conversation when I meant to say religious, which could have caused great offence.

An argument I once had with my friends perhaps also has origins in the different ways we learnt to read. It was over the pronunciation of the word mischievous, into which they were inserting an additional syllable presumably some rouge i or e (mischievEous). When I tried to point out, logically enough for me, that there was no i or e after the v, this seemed not to help matters. Their approach to reading or spelling the word did not involved phonetics, so my point, to them, was moot.

Another difference I have noticed manifests itself when spelling a word aloud to someone. I seem able to do this much faster than friends of mine, spooling off the letters aloud in a probably unhelpfully condensed rattle: M.I.S.C.H.I.E.V.O.U.S! (I might be wrong, but it's fast). My friends take more time about it because their database approach doesn't lend itself to spooling off the spelling as they have to think about how the word looks. Again I would point out that the phonetic approach cannot be relied on here for accurate spelling, but if it is supplemented by experience I find it is much more effective than relying on experience.

I hope some of this helps.
posted by nthdegx at 1:42 AM on August 20, 2005

there's were not

Take that as an example of my phonetic shortcomings. I'd guess 3/4 of my mistakes are typos, 1/8 semi-typo phonetic cock-ups like this, and 1/8 actual spelling errors.
posted by nthdegx at 1:46 AM on August 20, 2005

There's actually an additional phonetic-type error in there too (and at least one other typo). Apt. That's probably more than would generally appear in a text that long written by me; but those sorts of errors increase as I type more quickly and enthusiastically (which was certainly true of this). Proophreeding rox!
posted by nthdegx at 1:51 AM on August 20, 2005

I'm a super-speller. My sister was always a really awful speller despite being basically as smart as I am. Once she started taking medicine for her temporal lobe epilepsy, her spelling abilities increased dramatically which was very weird to see.
posted by jessamyn at 5:13 AM on August 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

I think it relates to which world you live in. If you're a very social person and have been brought up that way, it's likely your speech will be great, but your writing might be bad. If you were very bookish and wrote a lot, as I did, it might be the other way around. I've mispronounced words for years, and find it hard to remember pronunciations rather than spellings. (Though, of course, I am bound to have a spelling mistake in this post now ;-))
posted by wackybrit at 5:38 AM on August 20, 2005

I'm a terrible speller, and there are lots of learning disabilities in my family. One of my favourite slogans as a kid was: Bad Spellers of the World, UNTIE!!!

Just for fun, I won't do any spell-checking, although I will correct as many words as I catch and know how to spell.

For me there are a lot of factors like auditory thinking, laziness in grade school when we were learning spelling (me and my deskmate had an understanding about marking each other's spelling tests that got us out of spelling lessons for the week), and distraction. All of my reading, writing and thinking is on some level auditory (probably why I'm a slow reader as well). I "hear" a voice when I write or read. My accent does cause some interference with spelling sometimes, although I'm not trying to make words "sound" right... it's just I can't always tell whether the "sentence" that I hear is more right than the "sentance" that also presents itself as an option. (Ironically in this case the accent in my head helps, but because I know it's let me down in the past, I still don't know which to choose. Well, actually in this case I do, but there was a time when I didn't. That time ended with mocking.)

I'm a good reader with a good vocab (hrmmm, just noticed that somewhat subconsious strategy of using shortened slang for potentially difficult words) so sometimes I don't read to the end of the word. I read "sent" and in context I know it's "sentence" and I skip ahead. This means that the "ence" part of sentence is not reinforced through reading.

My ability to spell decreases significantly when I am under stress or really focused on the content of my sentence. When finishing up my major paper this summer, I would sometimes have a burst of creative thought and write it out as fast as I could. At those times I might have up to five or six errors in one sentence, most of them not typos. Spelling correctly as I write is similar to keeping a muscle flexed. Sometimes I have to unflex that muscle for speed, and it's always amazing to me just how bad it is.

I wrote a lot as a kid before I became even moderately passable at spelling, which may have reinforced bad habits.

I've become much better through two things: spell checkers, which help me identify problem words (ammount, neccessary) and embarassment at being in graduate school and having bad spelling. However, I find that I have to tackle words almost individually, and I don't learn more than about 5 in a month, if that. Some words take a long time and an almost painful effort to learn.

On top of all this, sometimes words suddenly start looking wrong to me for no reason: "Does 'term' have an 'e' in it? That doesn't seem right..."

Anyway, enough already. Hope there's some insight here.
posted by carmen at 7:03 AM on August 20, 2005

On a dylexia related note, dyslexia does run in my family, but so far has only manifested in males (my uncle and my little brother, maybe some others). I helped my brother struggle through his dyslexia to learn to read, so I'm very sure I do not have dyslexia in the way he does. (Note: I learned to read at an early age and had no trouble with it at all)

However, the women in my famly (grandmother, mom, and me) all have what could best be described as verbal dyslexia. When we're talking out loud, we have a tendency to say words in a sentence in the wrong order. For example, "I really love puppies" will come out "I really puppy loves". When I do this I almost always realize it immediately, but I'm never able to stop it before it happens.

I am definitely a better speller than my little brother, who has been officially diagnosed with dyslexia, but I am by no measure a good speller either.

Perhaps there are different forms and degrees of dyselxia that can effect one's spelling ability?
posted by geeky at 7:18 AM on August 20, 2005

Good question. I think this thread is showing that there's no simple answer. I reckon it has a lot to do with imprinting - at the original stage of learning sounds, learning the alphabet/words/associating them with sounds; there often being more than one way to sound syllables in english; the manner in which we meet new words, coupled with a dash of occasional sliding scale dyslexia, concentration aberrances and perhaps even some socialization input from our experiences in the past getting spelling right and wrong. Throw them all up in the air, let each individual take their serving of each portion and voila!

I can't help but think that our having some 200,000 words in common usage in english also plays a big part - I suppose it might be instructive to compare spelling anomalies with less ostentatious languages - I seem to recall an FPP a couple of months back about a spelling competition and that there were comments that essentially said that other countries find the concept of a spelling competition to be ridiculous. So the complexity of the language must be viewed as a ... let's say: predisposing factor.
And ps. I think I'm one of those who has a slightly higher belief in their spelling ability, although it's usually pretty good, than may in fact be the reality. Shh. Don't tell anyone.
posted by peacay at 8:25 AM on August 20, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks so far all, and please, keep your theories coming. I must say so far the visual/auditory gap seems most persuasive to me. I am a good speller (I get paid to, among other things, correct spelling). When I posted this question, I ran the spellcheck and it came up with nothing.

And for me it is *all* visual. I can't spell without writing a word down (hence my youthful history as a great speller who mysteriously failed spelling bees). In the "sentance" example, I am always confused that someone could insert that great yawning "a" into a word like "sentence" with its compact, repeating "e's." I also learned to read & comprehend via phonics and roots. For instance, I learned "antebellum" as being "ante" is "before" and "bellum" is war, so then when I came across "anteroom" or "bellicose," the spelling and meaning were pretty obvious.

Anyway, I like that our language is slutty, picking up all sorts of things god-knows-where.
posted by dame at 8:47 AM on August 20, 2005

Part of the vowel problem for spelling in English is that most unstressed vowels in multi-syllable words are pronounced as schwa. Think about "record" as a noun vs. "record" as a verb. Or "photograph" vs. "photographer".
posted by dmo at 9:19 AM on August 20, 2005

For those that say that they have a high IQ and "read a lot", I think the ability to spell is related to the quality of what they read. That is, Slashdot (new/junk media) vs. the New York Times (old/edited media).
posted by intermod at 10:28 AM on August 20, 2005

I am a horrible speller and always have been... I know that part of my issue is that I don't slow done enough to think about each individual word. Also since I am not a good typer, half of my spelling errors any more come from that.

Anyhow, I was told sometime in high school that people who can't spell usually had lots of ear infections as a little kid. I did, so I buy into that.
posted by kashmir772 at 11:12 AM on August 20, 2005

I can't spell. And I suspect there's some truth to the visual/auditory theory.

Recently, I played the lead part in a 2 hour, 45 minute play, in which I talked almost non-stop the whole time. I had to memorize pages and pages of dialogue. I had never played such a huge role before, and I asked my wife for advice about memorizing lines. She's a very experienced actress who can memorize quickly. She told me she does it by reading the text over and over. When she's saying the lines, she actually visualizes the words on the page. Sometimes she can even see the page number in her mind. And she can mentally turn the pages.

I tried this, but it utterly failed with me. No matter how many times I read the lines ON THE PAGE, they wouldn't stick in my head. But if I read one sentence and then spoke it aloud 50 times, I would remember it. So that's how I worked. I would hold one sentence in temporary memory and then put the script down. I would say that sentence 50 times. Then I would move on to the next sentence.

As an experiment, I tried visualizing the words -- the actually letter forms -- in my mind as I said the sentence aloud. But I couldn't do it. Or rather, I could, but it took incredible effort. And I realized that I wasn't remembering the letters from the book; I was re-creating them. In other words, I would say the word "hello," recalling just the sound, and then I'd think, "okay, what does the word hello LOOK like? Let's see... there's an 'h' at the beginning -- that's a straight line followed by a little hump... then there's an 'e' which is kind of a spiral-shape..."

This was interesting, but I couldn't keep it up for long. And it didn't help me memorize the lines. So I realized that I relate to language via sound (or via "virtual sound" created inside my brain). When I read words, I don't think I really see the whole words. I just see enough to guess what word it is, which triggers the SOUND of the word in my brain -- and it's the sound that holds meaning to me. SentEnce and sentAnce would trigger the same sound (the vowel change wouldn't trigger a different sound) so I wouldn't notice the difference in spelling.

I have no idea why I'm this way. My brother is the opposite. He's a good speller. My dad is a perfect speller and my brother is much like my dad in personality (in addition to spelling). I am more like my mom (in many ways), who can't spell. So maybe it is genetic.

I learned to read phonetically, but it didn't help my spelling.

I was a precocious reader, and I still read at least two books a week.

One interesting note (that fits in with my general theory about how I learn): for the past few years, I have been listening to audio books. I listen to them at night when I'm trying to fall asleep. During the day, I usually read the traditional way. I find that I have a hard time remembering whether or not I listened to a book or read it -- even though I remember the book itself quite well. I suspect that when I'm listening I'm listening and that when I'm reading I'm listening.
posted by grumblebee at 11:25 AM on August 20, 2005

Anyhow, I was told sometime in high school that people who can't spell usually had lots of ear infections as a little kid. I did, so I buy into that.

Weird. I've never heard this. But I had HORRIBLE ear infections as a kid (resulting in a slight, permanent) hearing loss.

NOTE: before the spell checker caught it, I had spelled "permAnEnt" as "permEnAnt." Which is actually how I pronounce it.
posted by grumblebee at 11:28 AM on August 20, 2005

I am routinely befuddled by a group of words and patterns.
Common errors, from the past and present:
apostrophes, where to put them
e before i, except when it's not.
awfuly vs. awfully
completly vs. completely

+ many more I can't think of. I'm quite visual in learning, but very auditory as well, just not in learning.
I'm also very pragmatic and stubborn, and never understood the big fuss about spelling, so I submit the "theory of not really caring".

Through repeated spell checking and correction, I've managed to take care of a good chunk of my "problem list", but still employ the word substitution strategy when writing an important letter, though sometimes it's a more complicated word.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 11:37 AM on August 20, 2005

For those that say that they have a high IQ and "read a lot", I think the ability to spell is related to the quality of what they read.

What about those of us that "read a lot", and read both of those sources, plus plenty of books? Because that would be me. Hell, I even read books about grammar (which until recently I habitually speller "grammer").

I think the reading a lot helps me recognize when words are spelled wrong, but since I'm concentrating on story and not spelling when I'm reading, it doesn't help me know how to spell words correctly.

Anyhow, I was told sometime in high school that people who can't spell usually had lots of ear infections as a little kid. I did, so I buy into that.

I've never heard that one before. Doesn't apply to me though -- I've never had an ear infection and I can't spell.
posted by geeky at 11:47 AM on August 20, 2005

Having chronic middle ear infections may increase the likelihood of a reading disorder, but true dyslexics exhibit a range of visual processing deficiencies which would not be adequately explained by trouble hearing clearly in childhood.
posted by nev at 11:59 AM on August 20, 2005

For those that say that they have a high IQ and "read a lot", I think the ability to spell is related to the quality of what they read.

I read tons of "serious" literature (Jane Austen, John Updike, Thackery, etc.), but it hasn't helped my spelling one bit.
posted by grumblebee at 12:09 PM on August 20, 2005

The way some people use visuals and others use auditory cues really resonates with me too. It seems that it is up to how each individual processes information in general, not just for spelling.

For example, I learned English as a second language, but I tend to spell well in both Swedish and English. I can't spell out things verbally, though, and it's only by writing something down that I know if it is spelled correctly or not.
posted by gemmy at 12:14 PM on August 20, 2005

Response by poster: Nev, that second link is great--a simple introduction to theories of dyslexia. It makes me think of something else, too: I'm a good speller, but I totally transpose letters when I read. (For instance, when I was young, I thought "derbis" and "debris" were both words. I was about eleven when I realized they were the same word.) Yet I never transpose them when I write. Weird.

Somewhat off topic: never understood the big fuss about spelling

Since you're all helping me out, I can help you out on this one: for people who care, mispelling is ugly. To go back to "sentance," that "a" destroys the word by drawing attention to itself and undoing the beautiful balance of those three prefect "e's." But bad penmanship also drives me mad, so clearly I have problems.

posted by dame at 12:19 PM on August 20, 2005

Dame, though I am a bad speller, I completely agree with you. When I write, I want people to think about the ideas and images that I'm conjuring up, not spelling or typos. Bad spelling is a problem because it distracts. Which is why I try to do the best I can -- with a ton of help from spellcheckers.

But I'm old enough to have gone to school before spellcheckers existed. My bad spelling was no doubt made worse by teacher after teacher telling me I was lazy and stupid. I was neither.

I was frequently told that I should look up words that I wasn't sure of. But that would mean looking up EVERY word. Dumb as this seems, I once spent twenty minutes, lying in bed, wondering how to spell "my." The correct spelling m-y just didn't seem right to me. Neither did the only other spelling I could think of: m-i. I finally had to get up and check a dictionary so that I could get to sleep.

Generally, people who can spell just don't understand people who can't. To them, saying, "I don't know how to spell," seems like saying, "I don't know how to make my bed." They assume that we MUST know how to spell, so our statement that we don't must be a lie or pure laziness. It SEEMS like that because people who know how to spell find it so effortless that they assume it must be effortless for everyone. Not so.
posted by grumblebee at 1:42 PM on August 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

Interesting. I have always been an excellent speller and voracious reader, sneaking books into reading class in elementary school because I had already finished the textbook, and man, would I get in trouble for that when I got caught! I also had tons of ear infections as a kid. Go figure.
posted by Lynsey at 2:26 PM on August 20, 2005

Great question. I was a spelling bee kid and have never had to think about spelling much...and I realize now it's because, to me, a word just IS its spelling. It's not a visual thing, because I can spell out loud or in my head just as well as I can on paper. It's that the way a word is pronounced is totally auxiliary to the way it's spelled. I know from studying linguistics that that's not true, but in my head, a word consists of letters in a certain order.
posted by climalene at 4:43 PM on August 20, 2005

And for me it is *all* visual. I can't spell without writing a word down (hence my youthful history as a great speller who mysteriously failed spelling bees). In the "sentance" example, I am always confused that someone could insert that great yawning "a" into a word like "sentence" with its compact, repeating "e's."

I can't spell out loud at all, I have to write it down. When writing, though, it's usually flawless. With the sentance/sentence example, my brain just doesn't accept "sentance" as a word. It's wrong and doesn't fit. I can see why someone would spell it that way, but... that's not the way it's spelled, so that's not the word.

People's names are like this for me, too. I have a had a friend "Kyal" for a long time, so when I met someone named "Kyle", I had to mentally convince myself every time I talked to him that although his name is "Kyle", it's pronounced "Kyal". Same thing with Cathy/Kathy--they are different names for me, and somewhat associated with different personality traits.

As for phonics, I think it's much more than that. I learned to read that way too, but there are so many words that break those rules that we must have some other system for it. My phonics instruction didn't account for cough, tough, though, and through having different endings despite the similar spelling. Sometimes it absolutely fails me. I was just in Vancouver and couldn't even take a stab at the pronunciation of "Lougheed" until I heard the SkyTrain announcer say it.
posted by heatherann at 9:55 AM on August 22, 2005

I've always been a bad speller. Recently I've been thinking it has to do with the fact I probably learned to read whole words at a time, skipping the whole 'letter by letter' thing.

I had some vision problems (visual cortex problems, not eye problems, I had to do 'vision therapy') and that probably played a big role.
posted by delmoi at 12:33 PM on September 6, 2005

the only word I was ever able to remember how to spell in grade school was 'attack'.
posted by delmoi at 12:35 PM on September 6, 2005

I spell sentance with an a, because that's the way I pronounce it.
posted by jb at 7:11 PM on September 6, 2005

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