Office conflicts have raised more than their share of questions. But how should one handle office stupidity?

A reader asks because she is "in shock over what I just overheard here at work." The issue: spelling.

"Two college-educated men were trying to figure out how to spell a pretty common word -- `surprisingly,' " the reader writes.

The first man asked if it was s-u-r-p-r-i-s-i-n-g-l-y. The second said no, the second "s" should be a "z." Meanwhile, my correspondent was eavesdropping up a storm from a couple of cubicles away -- and turning blue from frustration.

The two men finally wrenched themselves out of their misery by running a spell-check program on a nearby computer. But my reader is still wondering why "people with a higher education have such trouble with spelling."

"Am I wrong to be so horrified about this? . . . And what should an eavesdropping co-worker do in a situation like this? Interfere or let it go?"

What you've just discovered, my fair reader, is that a college degree is not necessarily a certificate of spelling ability. I work at a place that slings words the way a diner slings hash, and you'd be amazed at how poorly some of my fellow inmates spell.

Nor is it better at colleges themselves. I have taught at four universities and have been utterly aghast at what leapt at me from formal, written submissions.

One student butchered baby words such as "loitered" and "partial." He made them "loidered" and "parcial." When I called him on it, he insisted that the misspellings were not important because "you knew what I was trying to say."

I counterattacked (as ordered by the department chairman) by lowering his grade from an A-minus to a C-plus. He went off muttering a few words that no one could misspell -- because each had four letters.

Anyway, my frustrated eavesdropper may draw some comfort from knowing that the incident she overheard is not isolated. As to what to do about it . . .


Please, please, stay out of such conversations.

You can't win.

If you sail into the middle of one of them, proclaiming that of course "surprisingly" has two esses and no zees, why everyone knows that, you will forever brand yourself as a pompous know-it-all.

That will radically shorten your list of lunch invitations and lengthen the number of times you're asked to "rule" on future grammar and spelling disputes. You have better things to do.

However, my reader is not wrong to be horrified about this.

Sooner or later (probably sooner), one of her co-workers will send a piece of writing out into the world, on company letterhead. If he misspells a word (or, more likely, four), it will reflect on the company, and therefore on her. No fun going down with the ship because your shipmates are ignoramuses.

Last word goes to Janel M. Mueller, an English professor at the University of Chicago. At a recent lunch, I was chatting with her and told her the "surprisingly" story. Her response:

It was a good thing that neither office dimwit tried to drop the first "r." Janel said she has seen "suprisingly" surprisingly often.

At my front door, Halloween was fairly calm this year. A few Redskins, a few ballerinas and an early good night.

But I wasn't answering the door in Fairfax. Nureet Poor was. She writes with word of two trick-or-treaters who "might easily win the Worst Costume Ever Award."

The two were girls who "did not seem to be wearing much in the way of costumes except for some seemingly random face and body paint." Nureet asked (as I always do, too) what the girls were supposed to be.

"Teenage suicides," they replied, in unison.

Then, with great gobs of eagerness, they explained that one of them had been made up to look as if she had shot herself twice in the head. The other had supposedly slit her throat. "You can tell by the blood here on my neck," she said, helpfully.

Nureet wonders whether their parents knew about this or just threw up their hands and said it's Halloween, and anything goes.

This doesn't go.

As Nureet says, it's bad enough when prepubescent girls do the door-to-door bit dressed as Playboy bunnies. But "how could an idea like this not be past any parent's limit?" she asks.

Lawrence J. Boteler passes along word of an office where the boss decreed that everything be made Y2K compliant. A secretary was just sending in the specifications for next year's calendar. She hastened to make a few changes.

When the calendar came back, it listed Januark, Februark, Mak and Julk as months.

It listed the days of the week as Sundak, Mondak, Tuesdak, Wednesdak, Thursdak, Fridak and Saturdak.

The boss asked what in the world this was all about.

"We are now Y-to-K compliant," the secretary announced.