Friday, August 19, 2011

I Put a Spell on You

At the corner of the major intersection just down the street from our house is a relatively new pawn shop. On the LED display sign, the shop regularly advertises its wares, which tends to be depressing. This is not just because they have recently added the information about "Wheelchairs 4 Sale!" (seriously, who pawns a wheelchair?), but also because the sign consistently comes back to the generic ad of "Your in luck! Save a buck!"

Were this not an LED sign, I would be tempted to go attack the ad with a precut apostrophe and letter E, a la Lynn Truss. (I even have a little fantasy about striking fear in the hearts of poorly spelled signs as a midnight marauder of grammatical accuracy. I'd wear a cape with a semi-colon emblazoned on it. I would carry a Batman-style tool belt with apostrophes, letters, commas, parentheses and periods of various sizes and colors on it, so that I would be ready at a moment's notice to hold back the erosion of written English. The fact that I have thought about this in detail will tell you more than you really need to know about me.)

Now, despite the fact that I am, indeed, a grammar and spelling stickler, I am not one of those individuals who seems to believe that knowing the correct spelling of words in the (often-arbitrary, always-difficult) English language is a sign of moral superiority. I am a good speller and grammarian because I am linguistically oriented. That's just how my brain is wired. I know how to spell words because I can read them in my head.

Unfortunately, it seems like many people who are similarly wired with good spelling skills do not recognize the fact that they are simply different from others. This is not unique to spelling and grammar skills. Many people cannot recognize that others are different. The naturally slim can't comprehend those who gain five pounds by simply walking past a donut shop. The born organized types might just roll their eyes at their more slovenly brethren. Those who find school to be a breeze often don't recognize how difficult the place might be for kids who are not natural scholars. In short, people often judge others by whatever they find easiest.

Somehow, I feel like the judgment of non-spellers by spellers is especially pernicious. This may be because I am in the exalted group and I was raised to take the Queen's English quite seriously. (I actually thought that ain't was a bad word when I was a little kid. Really. I would have been more likely to say damn or hell than ain't.) I have been known to judge non-spellers, but that was in the past. I no longer judge people based on their ability or non-ability to spell or write perfectly grammatical sentences. Because those who can't generally can't help it.

What I do judge people on is whether or not they care about their spelling. I remember vividly being taught the difference between your and you're when I was in fifth grade. As soon as Mrs. Lambert pointed out the difference to me, and gave me a way to check my sentence to know which one I wanted to use, I never mixed up the two words again. That's not to say I haven't ever written one when I meant the other when I was in a hurry. That means that I care enough to go back and check my yours and you'res.

As a teacher, I have been frustrated by students who couldn't give a flying shit about their spelling. It took me several years to figure out that it didn't matter how many times I went over the there/their/they're differences, many of my students simply would not use the correct one when writing. They just didn't care.

When I met my husband, he apologized for his writing. He is not a good speller. His brain is wired so that it can see tiny details in engines and architecture and human interactions. But small black squiggles are not his area of expertise. I thought his emails were hilarious and charming and perfectly quirky. No, not every word was spelled correctly. But he spell-checked his work and did his best and cared that he was sending un-edited work to an eagle-eye editor type. That makes all the difference.

I guess because I am a good speller, I feel it when one of my kind insinuates that a non-speller is less than intelligent. I know that my expertise in spelling and grammar is an understanding of something completely arbitrary and fluid. It is like being an expert in a particular cloud formation. It's only going to be useful for so long. If my great-great grandchildren read my blog, it'll be so much old-timey English to them, with really weird and old-fashioned grammatical conventions. Basically, I understand that as long as meaning is clear, grammar and spelling don't really matter--at least not always.

That's not to say that I'm planning on giving up my semi-colon cape:

Faster than a speeding ellipsis...
More powerful than an exclamation point!
Able to determine the necessity of commas in a single bound.
Look, up on that ladder: It's a crazy lady!
No, it's the Grammarian!

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