Poor spelling doesn’t equal inferior intelligence, but it does require a Plan B
After a recent conversation with a Facebook pal about her spelling challenges, I was reminded of this voicemail I received from a client a few years back:
Hi, Laura. It’s Elizabeth. I really hope I caught you in time. You know that article I sent you to edit? Don’t open it! I mean, I hope you didn’t look at it yet. I just reread it, and realized it’s terrible. I need to rework it. I’ll see what I can do with it later this afternoon, and send you my improved version tonight or tomorrow. Thanks.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth never sent me the revision.
Funny thing about writing: many people have absolutely ZERO confidence in their ability to do it. What they often fail to realize is that they are much more skilled than they give themselves credit for. And for those whose ability is less than stellar, that’s the whole reason editors have jobs, isn’t it?
What I’d like to convince my client, Elizabeth — and everyone else out there who feels similarly — is that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about with regard to their writing skills. No matter how bad the spelling or how egregious the grammar errors, none of that is representative of how smart she is; nor does it diminish the importance of the information she wants to share with her audience.
In a 2000 Suite101.com article, “What Does Your Spelling Say About You Behind Your Back?” Sandra Linville references Marilyn Vos Savant’s book, The Art of Spelling: The Madness and the Method. Vos Savant wrote her book after conducting a 1998 survey in her Parade Magazine column, in which she asked, “What does your spelling really say about you? Is spelling ability a measure of your education, intelligence, desire, or none of the above?”
In her article, Linville explains, “The survey garnered more than 42,000 responses, indicating that better organizational skills benefit spelling ability, rather than intelligence. However, Vos Savant realizes that inept spellers can look inept in other ways. A misspelled word can kill a job offer or result in a rejected proposal. She also states that an English-speaking perfect speller doesn’t exist.”
Corresponding with Vos Savant’s theory, it is widely reputed that Albert Einstein, the unquestionable genius physicist, was so bad at spelling that he was initially assumed to be retarded. In fact, according to the 1998 ScienceGoGo.com article, “Ten Obscure Factoids Concerning Albert Einstein,” Factoid #3 is:
He Was a Rotten Speller. Although he lived for many years in the United States and was fully bilingual, Einstein claimed never to be able to write in English because of “the treacherous spelling.” He never lost his distinctive German accent either, summed up by his catch-phrase “I vill a little t’ink.”
Some now purport that Einstein struggled with dyslexia, a learning disorder that impairs a person’s fluency or comprehension accuracy. However, this claim is only speculative. Nevertheless, spelling is only one of several serious difficulties facing people with dyslexia.
According to Dyslexia-Parent.com, there are four main challenges for a dyslexic person:
2. Sentence punctuation
4. Sequencing ideas
In such a case, lack of intelligence clearly is not the issue for a challenged speller.
There is also the distinction to be made between poor cognitive spelling skills and never having learned to do it properly. As Philip Hensher writes in the UK’s The Independent:
Spelling may, in the end, not be a very reliable indicator of intelligence, and it is certainly possible to imagine very intelligent and articulate people who lack the skill. But society has agreed that it is significant, and there is no doubt that people, at some point in their lives, will be judged partly on the basis of whether they can spell or not. It is simply the job of education to teach that skill, and it is incredible to hear professional teachers sneering at the notion.
I fear that this attitude is not all that unusual, however. A couple of years ago, I agreed to teach a residential course for sixth-formers who were interested in becoming journalists. They were from a disadvantaged part of London, but I would say they were intrinsically bright and capable. I set some written work: it arrived: I held my head in horror. Not one of them was capable of writing 20 words without making a mistake in spelling, and sometimes an elementary one.
The point here is not that they lacked ability, but that their education had never impressed on them the importance of accuracy. It seemed perfectly plausible to them, and to their teachers, that native ability and enthusiasm would be enough to qualify them to write prose for a living. The idea that accuracy might be needed had literally never occurred to them.
One interesting yet seldom-mentioned fact is the converse of this idea that poor spelling is an indication of inferior intelligence, that is, good spelling is NOT necessarily an indication of intelligence. A person may have strong memorization and/or language skills without possessing comprehensive intelligence across all subjects.
Beyond spelling, another consideration is the fact that not all of us are inherently strong in verbal/linguistic skills. Renowned social scientist Howard Gardner developed a model known as multiple intelligences, meaning that although each of us has many ways in which we learn and perceive information, we generally have one primary area where we excel. The eight intelligences Gardner identified are: Verbal/Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Musical/Rhythmic, and Naturalistic.
Although verbal and linguistic may be perceived as the most commonly emphasized of the eight intelligences, there are seven other skill sets at which a person may excel. Verbal/linguistic may be my personal strengths, but just ask my niece about my fiasco as a sub, teaching math to her 6th grade Montessori class.
What it comes down to is this: in business in particular, heighten and hone your natural skills and leverage them as far as you can – but HIRE OUT your weaknesses. Don’t worry that you don’t do it well as you hand over the project to your outsourcee – that’s why you’re hiring them!
My client who said she needed to rewrite her article before she sent it to me reminded me of those people who feel they have to clean their houses before the housekeeper arrives. That one also baffles me. Rather than focus on her imperfections, I wish she could celebrate her wisdom in reaching out for help. If we could all just get past our shame about our deficiencies and instead focus on the things we do well, life would be so much easier.
Originally posted on March 31, 2007 as “There’s No Shame in Being a Bad Speller/Poor Grammarian” on the blog Communication Made Easy, by Marcie Brock creator, Laura Orsini.
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