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 s