This Spells Trubble

(Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, May 4, 2008

DID YOU KNOW Americans can't spell competently? It's true. They spell it "competantly."

Ha-ha. But, seriously, we don't know how to spell, and this deficiency is getting worse. A few weeks ago, a study came out showing that a shockingly high percentage of adults were stymied by such common words as "calendar," "accommodate," "questionnaire" and "definitely." The results were embarrassing (a word that, as it happens, 28 percent of Americans cannot spell).

The press release for the survey blamed this regrettable situation on cellphones, the use of which encourages semiliterate text messaging shortcuts 4 u 2 use. What to do about this spelling problem? The company that conducted the survey suggests the more widespread use of spell check, which is not surprising because the company that conducted the survey sells spell-check software. That company is WhiteSmoke Inc.

This excited me. If you don't know why it excited me, that is because you are not a hostile, opportunistic humor columnist who thrives on exposing corporate hypocrisy.

So, I contacted the PR guy, who put me in touch with Hilla Ovil-Brenner, chief executive officer of WhiteSmoke. She called me from Israel, where she lives.

Me: I notice you blame cellphones for our lamentable inability to spell. I think you forgot to mention one other factor.

Hilla: Okay. What's that?

Me: Spell check! Spell check is a demonic tool that has reduced us to a nation of spelling illiterates. No one needs to know how to spell anymore because the computer does it for us. Why learn whether "embarrass" has one "r" or two if every time you misspell it the computer automatically corrects you? These days, people think they are good spellers if they can misspell a word closely enough to the real spelling so that spell check can figure out what they probably meant to type.

Your solution is not addressing the problem; it's contributing to the problem by coddling poor spellers. It's like trying to address the prevalence of drunk driving by putting big, fluffy bumpers on our cars. It's like trying to address the epidemic of obesity by making toilet seats the diameter of garbage can lids.

So, ah, I was just wondering if you agreed with me about all this.

Hilla: It is genius that you say that. These are my thoughts, exactly.

Me: Because, as far as I am concerned, as a purveyer of spell check, you are a beast in human form, and . . . wait. What did you say?


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