Saunders: Call me old-fashioned, but I still care about spelling

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 16, 2013 

It appears that Mrs. Wright was right and I was wrong.

Thirty years ago, when I was a cub reporter at the Richmond County Daily Journal, I went to my nephew’s school in Rockingham to ask his fifth-grade teacher how he’d received an A on an assignment that contained several misspelled words, along with subjects and verbs that didn’t agree.

“Oh, we don’t grade on spelling,” she told me. She looked at me as though I had two heads when I told her I didn’t agree.

Her principal called my editor the next day to complain that I was trying to intimidate his teacher and influence a family member’s grade.

“You don’t do that,” editor Glenn Sumpter told me, angrier than I’d ever seen him, angry enough to threaten me with my walking papers if it ever happened again.

He softened a bit when I explained that I was complaining because the kid’s grade was too high, not too low, but he, too, looked at me as though I’d sprouted an extra noggin on my shoulders.

Three decades later, all that’s left to be said is “Uncle!” I give up.

Not much emphasis

If you watch television news, local as well as national, and read those aggravating scrolls that go across the bottom of the screen while you’re trying to listen, it is obvious that Mrs. Wright wasn’t the only one who didn’t grade for spelling.

The letters and emails I receive from students seeking a job or internship in journalism make it crystal clear that not a lot of emphasis is placed on what used to be considered an essential element of a good education.

As a former English major who is also probably borderline obsessive-compulsive about the issue, I seek out misspelled words the way those truffle-hunting dogs sniff out that buried and expensive French fungi. One needn’t dig too deep, though.

In one recent day – nay, in one hour – on one national news show, you could read about a new “canabis” report (that should be cannabis) on the long-term effects of marijuana and that soul singer Bobby Womack is “suffering ‘sings’ of Alzheimer’s disease.”

We also learned that Detroit “suffers its ’worse’ murder rate in 20 years” – that should be “worst’ – and that “activists climb 60-foot ‘tries’ to block construction on the Keystone XL pipeline.” Yes, the story said “tries,” not trees.

Spell-check gone awry

Behold: This is what happens when spell-check goes awry.

That same day, on a different network’s news, one saw information about a “deadly ‘plan’ crash” and about somebody named J.R.R. Tolkein. I was tempted to call the station and ask if that fellow was related to “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Many years ago, back when it was assumed that everyone had paid attention in Mrs. Blackwell’s second-grade class, I thought that the rare misspellings on store and restaurant signs were just cynically intentional attempts to get literate passers-by to come in and say “Hey, Mister, you’ve got ‘pig’s feat’ spelled incorrectly on your sign” so the proprietor could sell us a couple of those bad boys while we were in there.

That strategy, if it is one, worked at least once, several years ago, when I pulled over to inform a man on the side of the road that “watermelon” has only one “l” and that “peaches” should have an “A” somewhere in there.

When I saw the big, surly German shepherd lying behind his truck, though, I kept my mouth shut and drove off with a “watermellon” and some “peeches.”

Both were deelishus.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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