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GRAMMAR COACH: Fielding your questions
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Is proper spelling really important? As long as people understand what you mean, why should anyone other than persnickety nitpickers insist on correct spelling?
In an online forum about that subject, one participant who disputed the importance of spelling declared, "Our langauge is always changing," apparently unaware of the misspelling of "language" in his sentence. He was agreeing with a poster who wrote, "When blogging, many people often proof-read there posts so that the spelling has no errors, and it makes the blog appear to have good, quality content."
Lamenting a newspaper's decision to reduce the geographic territory for distribution of its print edition, an e-mail correspondent wrote, "This comes on the heals of significant staff reductions and big revenue losses."
A book that includes a biographical profile of former New York Gov. John Thompson Hoffman contains a statement declaring, "But the Convention at Albany was a very large one, and it soon became a parent that if a proper nomination were made for Governor, a vigorous campaign could be prosecuted with a reasonable hope of success."
On an Internet discussion board about parenting and pregnancy, a participant asked, "What are the complication [sic] of a baby born from a diabetic mother?" The best response, in the judgment of other participants, was one that began, "They didn't catch my being diabetic until the end of my pregnancy. They didn't do those sugar tests they were saposta do."
While the misspelling of "language" as "langauge" may have been a typing error, dizzyingly egregious misspellings (the likes of "saposta" and "a parent") and improper homophone selections (such as the noun "heals" when "heels" should have been used, or the adverb "there" when the possessive adjective "their" should have been used) indicate inattentiveness that may be more than momentary.
Of course, dyslexia and other learning disabilities that impede the function of correlating sounds to symbols can inhibit reading, writing and spelling proficiency. The frustration that people with such conditions experience is understandable, and their spelling errors are forgivable.
But for writers who are not so afflicted, egregious spelling errors could indicate lack understanding of the erroneously spelled words, which by extension can cast doubts on the writer's familiarity with the overall subject matter.
What might a bizarre mutation like "saposta" suggest about the intelligence of someone who regards it as a legitimate word? Reading that, you might think the writer in the absence of dyslexia is lazy (too much so to bother using a dictionary) or indifferent (about accuracy or propriety). Sloppiness may come to mind. Perhaps the writer disrespects tradition or rules.
Ah, rules. They are such a bother, aren't they? Motorists who disregard speed limits, "stop" signs, red traffic signals and laws prohibiting use of hand-held cell phones while driving obviously think so. Rules may apply to other people, but speeders and stop-sign violators have no time or regard for them or for you or your safety.
Misspellings typically do not pose threats to public safety, but they can jeopardize the intelligibility of a message and compromise the credibility of a writer.
Poor spelling also can inhibit the ability to obtain information, as demonstrated by a posting on a family-oriented Web site. A parent who claimed to be "appauled by Nickalodeon" as a result of a promotional message broadcast on the children's satellite TV channel wrote, "I have never seen such poor descrestion in a kids channel. You wouldn't think you would have to sheild your kids from things on Nickalodeon. I have writen an e-mail to the company but havn't heard anything yet. It was hard to find a contact number."
Finding a contact number certainly can be difficult for someone who doesn't know how to spell the name of the network (Nickelodeon). After misspelling not only that but also the words discretion ("descrestion"), shield ("sheild"), written ("writen") and haven't (havn't), did she really have an expectation of being taken seriously?
While those errors could be dismissed as typographical errors, the deviant spelling "appauled" betrays a lack of understanding of the meaning of the intended word, "appalled." One who is appalled is "overcome with consternation, shock, or dismay." The transitive verb "appall" is derived from the Latin word "pallescere," which refers to becoming pale. No one named Paul is involved. One fellow named Paul is indignant, however, about misappropriation of his name.
The Web site of a professor of English at Washington State University declared, "Those of us named Paul are appalled at the misspelling of this word. No U, two L's please. And it's certainly not "uphauled"!
Tell that to the teacher who submitted this product review: "I am a teacher and was uphauled by the poor educational value this puzzle has."
Educational value, indeed. That teacher apparently believes that the notion she was trying to convey bears a relationship to the verb haul. Someone probably could fashion that into a good joke punch line, if only it weren't so pitiable.
Reserve some pity for the students of such inadequately prepared teachers. Writing about her California hometown, a student at the State University of New York appeared to find nothing wrong with the spellings "enywhere" and "drections." In reference to a cow with a fistula a viewing hole for observation of the animal's digestive tract she wrote, "You talk about sticking your had in the stumic of a cow and people just look at you like your from another planit. When you meat people from davis [sic], and you know loger live in davis."
Commenting on a statement posted on an Internet discussion board, a participant wrote, "I agree with every word and I appauled you. I'll just keep on doing what I do."
Precisely what the writer will continue to do, other than spelling words incorrectly, was unclear.
Hay is an important commodity in the livestock industry, but an agricultural extension director with the University of Illinois appears to think it also has a relationship to nostalgia. In an article about the health benefits of cranberry consumption, the extension director wrote, "Cranberries are a good source of Vitamin C. During the hay-day of clipper ships and lengthy whaling trips, sailor [sic] ate them to ward off scurvy."
Hey, pardon us. The correct word is "heyday." To what could a "hay day" possibly refer, other than maybe alfalfa harvest time? The precise derivation of the word "heyday" (which refers to the stage or period of greatest vigor, strength or success) is uncertain, but lexicologists believe it is an extended form of the common exclamation "hey!"
The "hay-day" malapropism (unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word) pales in comparison to another stunning example of misunderstanding. A consumer wrote, "It goes without saying that expensive 5-star restrunts are in Beverly Hills." You know what a "rest" is and what a "runt" is, but you may wonder what a "restrunt" is. That statement appeared on a Web site on which diners could post their opinions of eateries. What do you think of the powers of observation of a reviewer who thinks that's how the word "restaurant" is spelled?
The minutes of a meeting of the Louisiana Board of Examiners of Certified Shorthand Reporters declared that the treasurer "read the report allowed and a copy was provided to each board member." How could the past tense of the verb "allow" be mistaken for the adverb "aloud" describing audible volume loudness?
How well you spell does say a lot about you and your attention to detail. If your spelling is a bit shaky, you can improve it. Yes, the English language is a patchwork composed of elements from numerous languages, and includes a profusion of words with bafflingly irregular or illogical spellings.
The best means to strengthen spelling competence is by reading ravenously and attentively. When you encounter a word that is unfamiliar or appears odd, consult a dictionary. Read the portion of the definition that explains the derivation of the word. Then write the word; doing so can help you remember how to spell it when you need to use it.
When you're writing and you are uncertain about how to spell a word, use an electronic or online dictionary that offers suggestions for words that are entered incorrectly. The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary (at http://www.merriam-webster.com) is one such resource. Entering the aberrant spelling "restrunt" at M-W Online generates a list of 20 legitimate words, including "restraint," "rostrate," "restitute" and "restaurant."
We also recommend use of a thesaurus to identify words with similar meanings, and word-a-day calendars.
You must enter the correct numerals of your ATM pass code in the proper sequence to make a purchase. A musician must play the proper notes in the right order to perform a song recognizably. And when writing, you should compose your words with the proper letters in their correct order in order to be understood and to appear credible.
We can't speak for everyone, but we know a Marti, a Jeff and a Paul who would agree.
1. Jodie V. wrote:
"How would you alphabetize a list of mixed words with their contractions for example: could not, couldn't, would not, wouldn't, we've, we have?"
The grammar coach replies:
Apostrophes, hyphens and virgules (slashes) should have no influence on the order of your alphabetical lists, Jodie. Treat them as if they were not there, regardless of whether you are alphabetizing according to the letter-by-letter or word-by-word method. (See http://www.editpros.com/news0702.html for an explanation of the two methods.)
Using either method, here is your correctly ordered list:
2. Tammy C. wrote:
"In a salutation, is it correct to write 'Dear Smith's' when addressing to a family, or should it be 'Dear Smiths'? (Also, was that question mark in the right place?)"
The grammar coach replies:
Tammy, the proper form to address the entire family by their family surname is "Dear Smiths" (without an apostrophe). The apostrophe is not used because you are expressing a plural, rather than possession.
You also could use the salutation "Dear Smith Family." Read more about plural and possessive formations of proper nouns in the "grammar coach" section of the April 2005 EditPros newsletter.
And yes, indeed, your sentence was punctuated correctly, with the question mark following the closing quotation mark. That's because the quoted portion ('Dear Smiths') is itself not a question; the question mark applies to the entire sentence.
To learn more about placement of quotation marks relative to closing punctuation, see the "grammar coach" installments in the September 2004 newsletter and the January 2007 newsletter.
Are you perplexed by some aspect of grammar or word usage? Don't be shy! Ask the "grammar coach" at EditPros and we'll try to helpat no charge, just for the sport of it.
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