This morning's New York Times includes an opinion piece by Virginia Heffernan on "The Price of Typos" in book and online publishing, which is available here. She explains that the move to digital publishing has pushed editors in the big publishing houses to abandon the scores of copyeditors and proofreaders that they used to employ to ensure orthographic perfection. Heffernan notes that, although online mistakes can be corrected within a matter of seconds, even minor spelling errors can lead to a huge decline in online revenue, inferior ranking in Google and other search engines, and the loss of respect among discerning advertisers, consumers, bibliophiles, and others that have come to expect the professional polish that used to characterize the publishing industry.
I couldn't agree more with Heffernan's call for a more attentive attitude toward spelling (and I would add, grammar), whether online or on paper. Maybe it's my training as a word nerd that has made me so intolerant of poor orthography. I have both a bachelor's and a master's degree in French language and literatures (yes, literatures plural), and I have often felt that if I have to sort out the quagmire of words that end in -ence and -ance in both languages, it certainly cannot be too much to ask other Anglophones to just get it right in English. In fact, I used to despair when correcting undergraduate papers or reviewing resumes from prospective employees that were simply awash in spelling atrocities. These mistakes communicated to me that the author was too sloppy, too careless, or insufficiently professional to get it right. My partner, who is a terrible speller, thinks I'm just being overly punctilious and fussy. He often says that on the issue of spelling, I'm just like Hermione Granger in Harry Potter, whom Professor Snape calls "an insufferable know-it-all". He's probably right.
Yet I would argue that poor spelling is hardly a trivial matter, because it is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our fast-paced, disposable, consumerist culture. I often feel that in the postmodern era we care more about cranking out any old garbage as quickly as possible, than about producing a high-quality product by exerting a little extra effort to apply a professional polish to our work. To give things the attentive care they deserve is a reflection of our values, of our very selves. It shows that we care; it shows that we believe that what we have produced has value. Of course, spelling is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Consumerist carelessness can also be perceived in the paucity of correspondents who still send hand-written thank-you notes for a gift, a lovely evening in someone's home, or a thoughtful visit during a hospitalization. I have also encountered it in the inability of a person to remember my name, even though I've met him or her several times. I don't buy the argument of the naysayers in Heffernan's article that claim that spelling errors display one's humanity, making the author seem more accessible and down-to-earth. How many of us feel an individual is more accessible when he forgets our name for the eighth time?
Now, before I am condemned for being too harsh, I must confess that I am as susceptible to the same foibles as everyone else, not usually in spelling, but certainly for other sins, especially remembering the countless names of people I meet through my work in the Church (about which I feel quite guilty) and in neglecting the niceties that make living in human society an edifying experience. Heffernan's article reminded me that contemporary culture can be a nasty business, making living more about the expeditious production and consumption of goods and services, than about the quality of our relationships, our efforts, and our creative potential. So, to the poor spellers out there, let's begin by putting just a little more effort into spelling things right. Dust off that thick bound volume on your shelf called a dictionary, particularly if you don't feel confident in your computer's spell-check. If you're just not sure, ask a nit-picky friend to cast an eye over your work. And as for the preceding rant, if you find any nistakes, just send them to the pubilsher.