Why Spelling Counts

Students often complain about professors meticulously marking spelling…and grammar…and usage…and other sentence-level problems in their writing when, in the students’ view, what the professors ought to be focusing on is the ideas the students are proffering.

“Shouldn’t the quality of my ideas be what matters? Why does spelling count?”

Privately, or among themselves, or under the veil of anonymity furnished by course evaluation forms, this irritation is expressed in terms of “picky little details” that professors “obsess over” at the cost of appreciating the student’s latent genius.

If one is still bothering to mark such matters on papers—and many of us, after a few years in the game, have given up doing so, alas—one can reply that articulating one’s ideas so as to clearly convey them to the reader is a crucial element of communication. In truth, the only ideas that “count” in such a situation are the ideas that are, in fact, communicated. So if enough words are misspelled, enough punctuation marks misused, and enough phrases mishandled, the only ideas getting through to the reader are in bad shape indeed.

This argument is a good one and we teachers ought to keep making it. But here’s another one, straight from the putative Real World—by which we mean, of course, the world of employment.

The ugly truth about work in this Real World, despite a generation or more of affirmation of each student’s precious wonderfulness—or, to be sure, in the alternative situation of a ruthless passing-along of barely educated pupils to the next grade level by overworked teachers whose attentions are disproportionately occupied by the variously troubled “problem children” in each excessively large class—is that few jobs, even in the Information Age, require and reward originality, or even creativity to any significant degree.

All jobs, however, require correct and complete following of instructions.

Those jobs—again, that would be all jobs—require, furthermore, such following of instructions regardless of whether one sees and agrees with the value of each instruction.

Failing to comply with the express directives of one’s supervisor is not generally understood as a mark of individual specialness. Nor do supervisors typically strain to “see past” such deviations into some underlying brilliance that more than compensates for this disappointment of expectations. No, not following instructions to the letter is more typically termed “cause for termination.”

If a student thereby wishes the best possible training for his or her success in the competitive world of job-seeking—and what student in these parlous times does not?—then he or she could do no better than to bless his or her instructors precisely for insisting on complete compliance with every parameter of every assignment.

Instead, that is, of whining about teachers requiring, say, double-spacing, or adequate margins, or single-sided printing, or secure stapling, let alone such “higher functions” as correct spelling, proper punctuation, and the like, students should be aggrieved at their (many) teachers who have not required such occupationally crucial conformity to conventions.

I shall deliver this message to my classes this coming week, even as I probably ought not to sit back to await the gushing compliments and extravagant gifts of thanks that should surely come my way.

But I won’t be wrong, will I?

3 Responses to “Why Spelling Counts”

  1. Bill Ross

    If students are routinely aggrieved then *something* is wrong and perhaps the remedy is to add the words “Spelling counts!” to the course description. In my line of work this is referred to as “managing expectations”.

  2. Dawit

    Even computers like good punctuation: The famous FORTRAN punctuation error occured on Mariner 1 in 1962. Here is a description of the error:

    “There is a useful lesson to be learned from the failure of one of the earliest planetary probes launched by NASA. The cause of the failure was eventually traced to a statement in its control software similar to this:

    DO 15 I = 1.100

    when what should have been written was:

    DO 15 I = 1,100

    but somehow a dot had replaced the comma. Because Fortran ignores spaces, this was seen by the compiler as:

    DO15I = 1.100
    which is a perfectly valid assignment to a variable called DO15I and not at all what was intended.”

  3. Lynn Betts

    My experience, in several disciplines, including businesses, is that knowing and following the correct rules is always good..but one must not be a stickler with other people’s work unless the institutional culture permits it. I mostly worked with engineers and MBAs (that segment of our modern world that thinks capitalization does not matter, and that jamming two perfectly good words together is the way to create product names, and who have far more weight today than liberal arts personnel ) so I had to learn to bite my tongue often, and get on with more important things. In those corporate cultures, however, the corporate communications department (creator of the PR and advertsing material) was allowed to make corrections of the engineers and MBAs, so I left it to them to be the “bad guys.”


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