A doubtful benevolence: Mark Twain on spelling

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Mark Twain, from his recently-published Autobiography:

As I have said before, I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters, and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.

He leads up to this conclusion with a curious theory of orthographico-genetic determinism, illustrated from personal experience:

The ability to spell is a natural gift. The person not born with it can never become perfect in it. I was always able to spell correctly. My wife, and her sister, Mrs. Crane, were always bad spellers. Once when Clara was a little chap, her mother was away from home for a few days, and Clara wrote her a small letter every day. When her mother returned, she praised Clara's letters. Then she said, "But in one of them, Clara, you spelled a word wrong."

Clara said, with quite unconscious brutality, "Why mamma, how did you know?"

More than a quarter of a century has elapsed, and Mrs. Crane is under our roof here in New York, for a few days. Her head is white now, but she is as pretty and winning and sweet as she was in those ancient times at her Quarry Farm, where she was an idol and the rest of us were the worshippers. Her gift of imperfect orthography remains unimpaired. She writes a great many letters. This was always a passion of hers. She was never able to live happily unless she could see that incomparable orthography flowing from her pen. Yesterday she asked me how to spell New Jersey, and I knew by her look, after she got the information, that she was regretting she hadn't asked somebody years ago. The miracles which she and her sister, Mrs. Clemens, were able to perform without help of dictionary or spelling book, are incredible. During the year of my engagement — 1869 — while I was out on the lecture platform, the daily letter that came for me generally brought me news from the front — by which expression I refer to the internecine war that was always going on in a friendly way between these two orthographists about the spelling of words. One of these words was scissors. They never seemed to consult a dictionary; they always wanted something or somebody that was more reliable. Between them, they had spelled scissors in seven different ways, a feat which I am certain no person now living, educated or uneducated, can match. I have forgotten how I was required to say which of the seven ways was the right one. I couldn't do it. If there had been fourteen ways, none of them would have been right. I remember only one of the instances offered — the other six have passed from my memory. That one was "sicisiors." That way of spelling it looked so reasonable — so plausible, to the discoverer of it, that I was hardly believed when I decided against it.

He reproduces a passage from his daughter Susy's description of him, and comments:

The spelling is frequently desperate, but it was Susy's, and it shall stand. I love it, and cannot profane it. To me, it is gold. To correct it would alloy it, not refine it. It would spoil it. It would take from it its freedom and flexibility and make it stiff and formal. Even when it is most extravagant I am not shocked. It is Susy's spelling and she was doing the best she could — and nothing could better it for me.

He goes on to explain that

[A]lthough good spelling was my one accomplishment I was never able to greatly respect it. When I was a schoolboy, sixty years ago, we had two prizes in our school. One was for good spelling, the other for amiability. These things were thin, smooth, silver disks, about the size of a dollar. Upon the one was engraved in flowing Italian script the words "Good Spelling," on the other was engraved the word "Amiability."  The holders of these prizes hung them about the neck with a string — and those holders were the envy of the whole school. There wasn't a pupil that wouldn't have given a leg for the privilege of wearing one of them a week, but no pupil ever got a chance except John Robards and me. John Robards was eternally and indestructibly amiable. I may even say devilishly amiable; fiendishly amiable; exasperatingly amiable. That was the sort of feeling that we had about that quality of his. So he always wore the amiability medal. I always wore the other medal. That word "always" is a trifle too strong. We lost the medals several times. It was because they became so monotonous. We needed a change — therefore several times we traded medals. It was a satisfaction to John Robards to seem to be a good speller, which he wasn't. And it was a satisfaction to me to seem to be amiable, for a change. But of course these changes could not long endure — for some schoolmate or other would presently notice what had been happening, and that schoolmate would not have been human if he had lost any time in reporting this treason. The teacher took the medals away from us at once, or course — and we always had them back again before Friday night. If we lost the medals Monday morning, John's amiability was at the top of the list Friday afternoon when the teacher came to square up the week's account. The Friday afternoon session always closed with "spelling down." Being in disgrace, I necessarily started at the foot of my division of spellers, but I always slaughtered both divisions and stood alone with the medal around my neck when the campaign was finished. I did miss on a word once, just at the end of one of these conflicts, and so lost the medal. I left the first r out of February — but that was to accommodate a sweetheart. My passion was so strong just at that time that I would have left out the whole alphabet if the word had contained it.

Unfortunately, we're left to imagine for ourselves how mis-spelling February might have helped him with his sweetheart.  But running through all of this, there's a suggestion that he found female spelling errors somehow attractive — or at least that it made a good story for him to make it seem that way. As he says elsewhere in the book, writing about his 70th birthday celebration,

In the speech which I made were concealed many facts. I expected everybody to discount those facts 95 per cent and that is probably what happened. That does not trouble me, I am used to having my statements discounted. My mother had begun it before I was seven years old. Yet all through my life my facts have had a substratum of truth, and therefore they were not without preciousness. Any person who is familiar with me knows how to strike my average, and therefore knows how to get at the jewel of any fact of mine and dig it out of its blue-clay matrix. My mother knew that art. When I was seven or eight, or ten, or twelve years old — along there — a neighbor said to her, "Do you ever believe anything that that boy says?" My mother said "He is the wellspring of truth, but you can't bring up the whole well with one bucket" — and she added, "I know his average, therefore he never deceives me. I discount him 30 per cent for embroidery, and what is left is perfect and priceless truth, without a flaw in it anywhere."


  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » A doubtful benevolence: Mark Twain on spelling [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    […] Language Log » A doubtful benevolence: Mark Twain on spelling languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2831 – view page – cached As I have said before, I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters, and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling book has been a doubtful benevolence to Tweets about this link […]

  2. GeorgeW said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:02 am

    "Once when Clara was a little chap . . ."

    Although I almost never use 'chap,' at least in recent years, I have never used it to refer to a female. In my personal lexicon it is [- female].
    To determine if I was anomalous, I only got one hit on The Google for "she was a little chap," vs. 602,000 for "he was a little chap."

    [(myl) The OED glosses it as "2.a. colloq. ‘Customer’, fellow, lad. (Todd, in 1818, said ‘it usually designates a person of whom a contemptuous opinion is entertained’; but it is now merely familiar and non-dignified, being chiefly applied to a young man.)", but also gives "2.b. humorously applied to a female".]

    Is there any evidence that, as Twain suggests, that spelling is a "natural gift" independent of general fluency?

    [(myl) I'm not aware of any evidence either way. It wouldn't surprise me to find substantial evidence for "heritability" of spelling, but this could be taken as evidence against the value of "heritability" as a technically-defined concept.]

  3. GeorgeW said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    @myl: Thanks. Since Twain was a humorist, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that he was using it as in 2.b. "humorously applied to a female".'

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:21 am

    @George W: I don't know about evidence in the scientifically acceptable sense, but I have long observed that many intelligent, articulate, educated, fluent writers are execrable spellers, just as many people of otherwise ordinary gifts are excellent spellers. I don't know whether it runs in families or whether the family correlations I've noticed are purely random.

    My son had a sixth-grade teacher, a lovely woman, quite a good writer, and an excellent teacher, who warned us at the initial parent conference of the year that she was not a good speller and we should not be surprised to see errors in notes from her. My stepdaughter is a Yale medical student but has never been able to spell worth a darn (and neither can her dad). Her brother and mother spell excellently.

    All just anecdotes, but suggestive.

  5. SimonMH said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    Perhaps his sweetheart's name began with an R? I suspect that accurate spelling, at least in my case, comes from much early reading with its concomitant corpus of sight words; as an infant I often knew how to spell a word without knowing how to pronounce it.

    [(myl) My hypothesis would be that by mis-spelling February, Twain allowed his "sweetheart" to win the spell-down.]

  6. marie-lucie said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    I don't think that good spelling and fluency are particularly linked. I have always been an excellent speller, because I have a very good visual memory. But I am not particularly "fluent" in either speech or writing – I often have to rephrase my sentences, sometimes several times. Mrs Crane was obviously of the opposite kind (and she and her sister may have been dyslexic).

  7. marie-lucie said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    Perhaps the sweetheart had been chided for spelling "Febuary" (corresponding to her pronunciation) and he deliberately made the mistake so she would not feel bad.

  8. The Ridger said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 10:12 am

    The very existence of spelling bees (or "spelling downs" – is that kin to "play downs", as some regions say instead of "play offs"?) seems to mitigate against spelling being easy for even most people. Again, anecdote: I have a creative and fluent sister who can't spell worth beans, and know many people who win spelling bees but can't write fluently at all. I'd have to say the two things aren't connected, though it might be easier to memorize how to spell words than learn how to write sentences using them.

  9. Mr Punch said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    I've had occasion to read the letters of Theodore Roosevelt, who was a fluent writer with many books to his credit, and was at least nominally a magazine editor as well. He was reputed to have a photographic memory. But his spelling was awful.

  10. jean-pierre metereau said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 10:42 am

    I assume Marie-Lucie is a native French speaker as am I. It seems that most English misspellings involve vowels, which are pronounced as schwas in unaccented positions. I think that when I read a word I unconsciously pronounce it in French and thus nail down the vowels. That might be a reason why Marie-Lucie and I are good spellers.

  11. jb said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    @GeorgeW Dictionary.com (based on Random House, but couldn't find the Random House citation offhand) also gives: "Chiefly Midland and Southern U.S.: a baby or young child," which echoes a usage I've seen in Cormac McCarthy.

  12. tpr said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

    I think I need to read this book. I'd already planned to, but this is making it more urgent. I guess I could slip this fact into conversation between now and Dec 25th.

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    Another anecdote: I've cyber-known intelligent, well-read, well-educated native speakers of Spanish who were bad spellers in their native language. That convinced me that some people will never spell well—but whether that's innate, and if so, whether it's hereditary, I couldn't guess.

  14. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    I noticed this sentence:

    To correct it would allow it, not refine it.

    Is that how the sentence stands in the book? It seems, from context, that "allow" should be "alloy", since he is talking about poor spelling as a form of precious metal, and not as something that shouldn't be permitted.

    It would be ironic if that was a misspelling in the book, in this passage about misspelling.

  15. bfwebster said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    I assume Marie-Lucie is a native French speaker as am I. It seems that most English misspellings involve vowels, which are pronounced as schwas in unaccented positions.

    I was an outstanding speller until (nearly 40 years ago) I spent two years doing missionary work in Central America and became fluent in Spanish, which is of course pronounced exactly as it is spelled. When I returned to the States, I found I had exactly the spelling problems Jean-Pierre describes, namely schwa-vowels in unaccented positions. Still do, though I long since lost my fluency in Spanish. ..bruce..

  16. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    @jean-pierre metereau: Sure, but I would assume that marie-lucie meant that she's always been an excellent speller in French (if not also in English). Your vowel pronunciations won't help you avoid *"je prend" or *"quatres-vingts-dix", both of which are quite common.

  17. Rubrick said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

    Dang it, I may need to jump on the Autobiography bandwagon after all. Twain is just so damn good. Thank you for the reminder.

  18. Bloix said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    Twain's daughter Susy – Olivia Susan Clemens – died of meningitis in 1896, at the age of 24. His adored wife, Livy – Olivia Langdon Clemens – died in 1904 after years of illness. When he writes that their spelling errors are "as gold" to him, he means it.

  19. Ray Dillinger said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    I share both Twain's gift for spelling and his disdain of it. It is trivially easy for me to spell words correctly because I find that if they are spelled any other way they "look wrong." I can't explain it better than that, but it's definitely a visual experience for me. If I am unable to say verbally how to spell something, all I need do is write down both the spellings that seem reasonable when I am thinking of the letters as sounds, creating images to compare. One of them will "look wrong," and if the other does not, then I have my correct spelling.

    That said, I often and purposely choose between variant spellings those most in accord with accepted pronunciation, and between variant pronunciations those most in accord with the accepted spelling. While unwilling to embrace radical spelling reform as advocated by so many luminaries and lampooned IIRC by Twain himself, I am happy to choose among the alternatives made available by the use of others to accomplish some small part of that goal.

  20. KevinM said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    [(myl) My hypothesis would be that by mis-spelling February, Twain allowed his "sweetheart" to win the spell-down.]

    I'm certain you're right. The author of Tom Sawyer knew the value of taking a dive to impress his young sweetheart, as the Becky Thatcher episode will attest.

  21. Alan Gunn said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    "I have always been an excellent speller, because I have a very good visual memory."

    Interesting. I'm a good (not excellent) speller and I have almost no visual memory at all, certainly not enough to be able to visualize words. I spell partly by sounding things out (including words like "February," and "Wednesday" which I sound out by imagining that they are pronounced differently than anyone really pronounces them). When I was young, I was astonished to learn that there are people who can read without thinking about what the words they are reading sound like; my sense today is that most people read that way and I am the oddball. The only thing I can remember reading that discusses some of the ways in which people's minds work differently in performing tasks is one of Richard Feynman's autobiographical sketches, discussing different ways of estimating the passage of time. One would think that some sorts of scientists would be interested in these differences, and that understanding them would be useful for teachers, who sometimes take a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction.

  22. Alan Gunn said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    On reflection, I suppose many people including me do sometimes pronounce the r in "February." "Quay" would have been a better example.

  23. JMM said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    I've long thought (without any evidence) that poor spellers spent a much shorter time getting to the sight reading stage, while good spellers spent a longer period reading each word phonetically. Poor spellers have seldom looked at all the letters in most words. This would explain why so many prolific readers (and excellent writers) have so much trouble with spelling.

    Of course, it could also be a defensive conjecture (if it weren't for spell-checkers, I'd be isolated from much of the world.), and I don't really think the shift to sight reading equals early reading or greater intelligence, only a different form of visual acuity.

  24. Mark F. said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

    Are there spelling bees outside the US? Outside the Anglophone world?

    [(myl) See "This is not your granddaughter's spelling bee", 6/19/2004.]

  25. Rick S said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

    When I was young and learning to spell, I shared Alan Gunn's approach (mentally sounding out all the letters; in my day we were taught phonics). Some time later I found myself with Ray Dillinger's ability (misspelled words "look wrong" to me). I wonder if that's a normal developmental change.

    In any case, proofreading for me is pretty easy, except for a few ie/ei words such as "receive", which I guess I may have seen misspelled often enough that either way looks about the same. But I have to be diligent about homonyms; sometimes I'll miss their/there substitutions, for example. So I guess there's a part of my brain that's still depending on sound/spelling correlations.

  26. John Walden said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 3:07 am

    I'm also a good speller who relies on the "looks wrong" gut-feeling, to the extent of sometimes writing down two versions to see which I prefer. It's all very visual, isn't it?

    I still find AmE spellings "look wrong". I'm sure BrE spellings look wrong to AmE users. It's not as if I haven't seen plenty of AmE spellings over the years, which makes me think that their inherent "wrongness" was wired into me at an early age.

    I went through the same educational mill as many bad spellers, so what's all that about?

    What I do remember is learning to read later than others but then being able to do it very well. I became a voracious reader and encountered many words before I ever heard them: the term "sonofabitch" was not bandied around much in the UK Home Counties in the mid-sixties so I mentally rhymed the middle with 'sofa' and didn't get what it meant at all. For me words "are" their written form. Maybe that's it.

  27. GeorgeW said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 6:19 am

    I often use the 'looks wrong' test as well.

    Since English has 15 vowels and 6 symbols (with two representing the same sound [I] & [Y]), visual must be a bigger influence than sound in getting to get the correct spelling. There could also be an element of memorization. Attempts at fonetik spelin kud leed won doun the rawng path.

  28. John Walden said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    Here's a nasty test. I remember I got 20 when I did it, but only 17 this time!


  29. Diane said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:09 am

    I, too, am a very good speller because I am good at remembering the shape of a word, and I am frankly rather surprised that anyone tries to spell English words by ear. It seems like a recipe for disaster, given how flexible English rules of spelling are.

    @JMM, I have always thought the opposite. I don't remember ever sounding out words, although I suppose I did, and in fact I distinctly remember sitting in first grade and listening to some kid beside me sounding out words and wondering why they were doing that.

    Even now, in my 30s, I occasionally find myself trying to use a word and discovering that I don't have a pronunciation for it. Not just that I have a wrong pronunciation for it, because I had never heard it pronounced, but that I had never tried, even in my own head, to pronounce it.

  30. Kylopod said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    It's a misconception in these discussions that English spelling is completely or largely arbitrary. There are many arbitrary elements to English spelling–probably more than for any other language–but the majority of it is still systematic. That should be kept in mind in theories that link good spelling to good memory.

    To the extent that memory plays a role, I have my doubts that it has to do with visual memory. I'm a great speller, and I also have a powerful memory when it comes to things like learning speeches by heart or quickly memorizing passwords or combinations, but I don't remember faces very well, I'm not a particularly good artist, and I'm terrible with maps (physical or mental). Somebody mentioned that Teddy Roosevelt was reported to have a photographic memory yet was a poor speller, and that makes sense. I suspect a different type of memory is involved with good spelling.

  31. bbleeker said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 9:14 am

    @John Walden: I got 17 on that test, though they could have made it more difficult for me; in several cases, they didn't include the misspelling I was thinking might be correct. ;-) My first language is Dutch, and like for you, words *are* their written form for me in English (and to a great extent in Dutch, too). I can make people laugh by the way I mispronounce the words they misspell, just because I've never even heard them pronounced. (Who'd ever have guessed that 'recipe' is pronounced the way it is, and doesn't rhyme with 'ripe'?) Maybe I should watch more TV…

  32. MattF said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    I'm a bad speller and an avid crossword solver. Which goes to show… something or other.

  33. Peter said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    @Kylopod: I agree with you that visual memory isn’t the only road to good spelling, but it sounds like it’s certainly a major aspect for some people.

    For my part I think I go mostly by patterns/analogies/etymologies, with visual memory for fallback. English spelling may not be phonetic, but hardly any words are complete one-offs in their spelling. The words I’m least confident on (eg in the Guardian quiz linked above) are those (like “harass”) where I don’t know the etymology or any related/comparable words, and have to go on visual memory alone.

  34. Mark P said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    My person experience with typing ability was that when computers replaced typewriters, my error rate went up but the total output also went up, mainly because of the ease of backspacing and retyping. I wonder if there will be a similar effect from spell checkers.

  35. GeorgeW said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    @Mark P: I am convinced that spell checkers have impaired by spelling ability. The same is true of electronic calculators – they have impaired my math-gymnastics ability (I am old enough to remember when they were introduced).

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    I am convinced that spell checkers have impaired by spelling ability

    Well put.

  37. Mark P said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    "My person experience …"

    But spell checkers can't fix every problem. It must be my keyboard.

  38. GeorgeW said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: Thanks for the kind comment. It would have been better put had my spell checker corrected the "by" with the intended 'my.' Why do we see these only after they are in print?

  39. Craig Russell said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    @John Walden

    Thanks for the link. I think this test demonstrated that spelling is very much a visual thing (for me at least) because the only one I really got stuck on was one for which the three choices were:


    I am American, and so none of these is the way I would spell it; they all tripped my visual "this is incorrect" sensor. But if the three had been:


    I would have immediately recognized the first as the correct one.

    I was going to say, in reference to your earlier comment, that I do not find that British spellings stick out as wrong, but on further reflection I realize that they do; or at least, that they stick out. If I'm reading something with those spellings, I never fail to notice each and every one. I suppose it's not so much that they look wrong as that they stick out enough for me to pause on them.

  40. Mary Bull said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    [KevinM said,
    [(myl) My hypothesis would be that by mis-spelling February, Twain allowed his "sweetheart" to win the spell-down.]
    I'm certain you're right. The author of Tom Sawyer knew the value of taking a dive to impress his young sweetheart, as the Becky Thatcher episode will attest.]

    That's what I thought, too. And it brought to mind John Greenleaf Whittier's poem,
    with its "I'm sorry that I spelt the word/ I hate to go above you/ Because … / Because, you see, I love you."


  41. Bloix said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    What a wonderful catch, Mary Bull. Twain wouldn't have been above appropriating Whittier's sentimental tale and giving it a Tom Sawyer-ish twist.

  42. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    Just to add a data point, I’m also a good speller thanks to the “looks wrong” feel—even in my native language, Portuguese, which is way more phonetic and regular than English (but not as much as, say, Japanese or Korean).

    I rely in the same feeling even for grammar, comma placement etc. I don’t think it’s a purely visual mechanism; it feels like the brain has an autonomous system for pattern-matching, and I have trained it with lots of reading.

  43. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    @Kylopod: It's true that much of English spelling is fairly regular, but I think that the regular parts are mostly irrelevant, in that the bad spellers are generally following the broad conventions of English spelling; they're just violating the conventions governing various specific words. People who write "definately" and "irredescent" have apparently failed to pick up the "correct" spellings, so are left to use plausible guesses based on broad conventions and patterns that happen not to apply.

  44. A2DEZ said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    To me, being a good speller doesn't just mean being able to spell lots of words correctly. That's just a given, and is really quite dull.

    Being a good speller means being able to use spelling to create new language, tweaking letters and letter-sound correspondences so that the words can mean more, and on more levels.

    Tabloid headlines are great at this, layering information, punning and using homophones. A glance at the sports pages of 'The Sun' will show this. http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/sport/

  45. Joyce Melton said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 4:29 am

    Another point for the graph: My mother taught me the alphabet at age three and how to sound out words. I'm an excellent speller, though not perfect. I both see and hear words in my memory when speaking/listening or writing/reading. I have very good visual and auditory memory.

    I don't remember ever not being able to spell. But I'm from Arkansas and I do remember noticing in the fifth grade how curious it was that wash was not spelled with an r.

  46. Peter G. Howland said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 6:26 am

    Unlike “Kylopod” (Dec. 7th @ 8:34 am) I am excellent with maps, I’m a very good artist, I easily remember names and faces and, if I’ve decided that it makes a difference to me, have a very good orthographic visual memory when it comes to technical terms. But I can neither remember my own passwords nor relate an interesting story (much less a speech!) that I might want to iterate at a gathering of friends or family without a cheat-sheet.
    However, I too am a “great speller” in many respects. That is, give me a complex word with lots of syllables and plenty of consonants and I can usually get it right. Especially if I can grok the root, recognize the prefix, assign a meaning to the suffix, pick up on an infix when I hear one, and so forth. But it’s the words with lots of vowels and vowel combinations that blow my brain up. If I haven’t made the effort or taken the time to remember how such-and-such a word is spelled it’s an instant fail. And I can’t remember them *all*, dammit!
    A big part of spelling difficulty for me is perpetrated by our vaunted linguist’s and English dictionary’s so-called “schwa” nonsense. This /ǝ/ is an undifferentiated vowel sound? Well, baloney! Show me an /ah/, /eh/, /ih/, /oh/, or /uh/ in your pronunciation breakdown and I’ll have a phonetic clue as to what letter to use when trying to remember how to spell this particular gol’dang word.
    Another spelling failure on my part is my own habitual mispronunciations or imprecise locutions. I recently had occasion to write the word “plagiarism”. (It would be embarrassing to expound on why I had to use the word, but anyway…) For decades I have pronounced the word “play-jer-izm”, but as you can see when it’s spelled correctly, there’s an /ih/ in there. We all probably glide over it due to the dreaded schwa, but you gotta put an “i” in your written version of the word to spell it right.
    I often have to resort to mental mispronunciation of a word to remember how it’s spelled. As “bbleeker” mentioned on Dec. 7th @ 9:14 am, “recipe” is one such. If I say “ree-sipe” to myself I spell it correctly. If I think/say “reh-sih-pee” or “reh-sup-ee”, I don’t know what to do.
    BTW, as a nearly monolingual AmE speaker and borderline Francophobe, it was many years before I realized when listening to radio announcers and then reading my CD liner notes that David Benwah and David Benoit were the same person! Good gravy, what an idiotic linguistic heathen I must be!

  47. Nijma said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 9:17 am

    When I took a course in computer technology, I noticed that at least 80% of the students couldn't spell simple words correctly, even though they might be at home with differential equations or calculus. The ability to spell is a natural gift, indeed.

    Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences comes to mind.

  48. cameron said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    I don't know about the natural talent hypothesis. I grew up bilingual, speaking English and Persian (English was always my first language, but I was quite fluent in Persian as a child) and attended a bilingual school through 8th grade. Spelling was the bane of my existence in Persian language classes, but I was really good at spelling in English. As awkward as the English spelling conventions can sometimes be, overall English spelling is much easier to learn than Persian, in which borrowed Arabic words are spelled as they are in Arabic, but pronounced in a language with a quite different set of consonants. Thus you get, for example, three letters pronounced as English 'z'. These correspond to distinct phonemes in Arabic, but with the relevant distinctions completely lost in Persian. So, to spell in Persian you need to know whether a word is Persian or originally Arabic, and, if originally Arabic, you'd ideally also need to know the proper Arabic pronunciation, which no-one actually uses speaking Persian.

  49. SimonMH said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Sweetheart wins spell-down? Yes, that explanation is more satisfactory. I have never taken part in a spell-down and assumed that the winner was the highest score over a number of items rather than decided by simple elimination. An analogy with the shoot-out seems not entirely far-fetched.

  50. Peter G. Howland said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    Okay, everyone…just calm down. I was being hyperbolic regarding the “schwa” business in order to have a little fun, but more, to make a point. To revisit the so-called pin/pen merger which was discussed all to pieces a while back (and, yes, I read *every* comment – all 146 of ’em!)…if our dictionaries or spelling teachers had denoted their respective pronunciations as /p-ihn/ and /p-ehn/, no-one (disregarding regional or cultural dialect influences) would have ever thought to pronounce them the same or to misconstrue their separate meanings. Although the dictionary does not use schwa to suggest how these particular words should be pronounced, neither does it offer a clue as to what sound to vocalize with the letters “i” and “e” nor how to readily differentiate the words’ spellings through phonetic tutelage.
    To cite another related example, I recently came across “apon” for “upon” in an on-line post, and no, it wasn’t a typo…it was used several times. And of course, what do my raggedy old unabridged dictionaries show? /ǝ-pon/! What’s a poor amateur speaker/speller to do with this backward “e”?
    I’ve been wrestling with our English reading and writing mysteries for nearly 74 years, so you’d think by now I’d have it all figured out. But I have only recently discovered Language Log, and believe me when I say that I have learned a great deal over just this past couple of months. So, to all you professional linguists out there (myl, GKP, et al.) and LLs many thoughtful commenters, a very sincere thank you.

  51. Calaqscedoa said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    With written language we are condemned to live closely bound to the past, but we're not bound by its images unless we are too much obsessed into being inquisitive.

  52. maidhc said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    Interesting about Persian, cameron, and English has a similar relationship to French in some ways. For example, when is "ch" pronounced as it is in "Chicago" or "charlatan"?

  53. JMM said,

    December 9, 2010 @ 12:41 am

    "Ch" is a lot worse than that, isn't it, maidhc? That whole problem might have nothing to do with French. Everyone I know pronounces those two letters two different way in "church", and neither of those ways match the sounds of Chicago or charlatan.

  54. Ray Dillinger said,

    December 11, 2010 @ 5:33 am

    The correspondence of spelling to pronunciation in English is complex, but hardly arbitrary.

    The voice produced by a text-to-speech chip, which follows simple lexical rules to pronounce unfamiliar words, is intelligible, though not quite native-sounding, to English speakers. Fairly frequently (once in forty words or so) it gets word stress wrong. Sometimes (once in eighty words or so?) it gets vowel sounds wrong. Occasionally (maybe one word in three hundred?) it uses a wrong, but close, consonant, missing a voiced-versus-unvoiced distinction or something.

    These error rates are comparable to simple dialect differences, or to speakers in their first two years of English study. The "dialect" of machine English, whose pronunciation is solely dependent on spelling, is entirely intelligible to speakers of other dialects.

  55. msH said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 5:23 am

    When I was a teenager I never, ever wrote "their" when I meant "there", or "too" or "two" when I meant "to" – the spellings were directly connected with meaning in my mind, and to me they were obviously different words. It never would have occurred to me that it was possible to confuse them if I hadn't seen other people do it. I didn't make that kind of error, even writing at high speed (although there were lots of words I could spell and use, but didn't know how to pronounce).

    At 21 I learned to touch-type at a reasonable speed. And ever since, that sort of sound error has crept in.

    I almost always notice and correct the errors immediately – I am still aware of them – but now they happen when they didn't before. I *feel* – meaninglessly – that touch-typing is sound, when handwriting was meaning. But now I make sound errors in handwriting as well. I can't write nearly as fast as I used to and I hardly ever write by hand any more.

    I have no idea how you would test why this happens. I'm with Twain on the point of principle, spelling is expressive and it's a real shame to suppress it.

  56. Link love: language (25) « Sentence first said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:27 am

    […] Mark Twain on spelling. […]

  57. Mark Twain on Spelling « shigekuni. said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    […] (quote stolen from Language Log) […]

  58. Alon Lischinsky said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 5:31 am

    @JMM: I've never heard anyone pronounce the ⟨ch⟩ in ⟨church⟩ as anything other than the affricate /tʃ/, and a brief look at some dictionaries, including the OED, confirms that. How do you pronounce it? Neither /ʃ/ nor /ʂ/ (assuming assimilation of the preceding /ɹ/) seem likely.

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