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Spelling Bee! June 1, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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By chance, I stumbled upon the finals of the National Spelling Bee last week.  I watched a bit for fun, but was soon completely captivated.  I wound up watching all ten rounds to see who would win.

I am a stickler for correct spelling.  Spelling, like math, is either right or wrong. There is no “close enough” in spelling, even if the reader can figure out what you were trying to say.  Poor spelling says, in effect, “I can’t figure this out; you do it.”

It was fascinating to see the competitors work through the Bee.  For each word, they were able to ask questions about origin and meaning, as well as alternate pronunciations and appropriate usage.  The color commentator was great, explaining how these clues helped.  Word origin is especially helpful since various root and suffix patterns differ between Latin, Greek, and Germanic origins.  Sure enough, one kid used the Greek origin of a word to pick out the correct “rrh” pattern in the middle of a medical term.

As all these things do, it came down to a four-time competitor and a newby, battling through the list of “Championship Words.”  The newcomer, seventh-grader Tim Ruiter, missed “maecenas.” This opened the door for Kavya Shivashankar to nail “laodicean” for the win.  Personally, I didn’t think this was fair.  “Maecenas” has that awful blended “ae” and a soft “c,” making it almost impossible to spell if you haven’t seen it before.  “Laodicean,” on the other hand, is spelled exactly as it sounds and is a somewhat more common word.

Although I think a better final round would involve soundproof chambers and everyone spelling the same words at the same time, I can’t complain about the general intent of the Bee: to reward those who care to get it right, who take the time to do the job well.

Would that we would all apply similar discipline and focus to everything we do, spelling or otherwise.  Many people view spelling as a small, inconsequential thing, but it represents a far larger concern.  There is no difference between a writer with poor spelling and a painter who does sloppy trim work, or a carpenter who doesn’t sand everything evenly.  Either you care enough to do a job right, or you don’t.

Spelling matters.  Grammar matters. Punctuation matters.  Neat painting and smooth furniture matter.  As does making that extra call to a customer, taking an extra moment to listen to someone’s concerns, or working a bit harder to understand a problem.  Little things do matter, and all the things that seem big are really just lots of little things strung together.  Get the little things right, and the big things will come much easier.


1. mikeb - June 1, 2009

Today’s post reminds me of one of my wife’s favorite poems. Perhaps you’ve seen it:

Once upon a time there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day he was walking along the shore. As he looked down the beach, he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself to think of someone who would dance to the day.
So he began to walk faster to catch up. As he got closer, he saw that it was a young man and the young man wasn’t dancing, but instead he was reaching down to the shore, picking up something and very gently throwing it into the ocean.
As he got closer he called out, “Good morning! What are you doing?” The young man paused, looked up and replied, “Throwing starfish in the ocean.”
“I guess I should have asked, why are you throwing starfish in the ocean?”
“The sun is up and the tide is going out. And if I don’t throw them in they’ll die.”
“But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it. You can’t possibly make a difference!”
The young man listened politely. Then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the ocean, past the breaking waves and said – “It made a difference for that one.”

Little things do indeed matter!

2. Lynn M - June 3, 2009


Great post…though I have to ask (dare I ask?) did you mean to say, “I’m can’t figure this out; you do it?” Perhaps in writing about spelling and grammar you got so caught up in it you had a false start like an intense sprinter at the starting line. Or maybe you were making a point? Yeah, let’s go with that one!

I agree with you, the little things do matter. They also have their place. In an instant message and even in a casual email, I don’t expect people to capitalize and use proper punctuation or even the best spelling all of the time. Though I do wonder what this is doing for our standards. When you think of it, the things that matter are bound to evolve (whether we like it or not). In elementary school, I’m finding my kids aren’t focusing much time at all on handwriting (script). Perhaps it is becoming a lost art…..after all, we should probably be teaching them how to type at an early age since they will do most of their communicating on computers and devices, not paper. Do we educate our youth based on the OLD “what matters” or prepare them for the future “what matters?”

I’m a stickler for spelling and grammar myself, so I certainly appreciate your view. I also think some people have a mind geared to spell things correctly. I know some brilliant people who just can’t spell to save their lives and I don’t know that it has to do with caring enough. I agree, if you are presenting something you need to care enough to make sure everything is done right (that means spelled right too). Professionalism = caring. You care to present everything well — the way you write, dress, speak, interact, and work.

Thanks (and sorry for the novel). My daughter is competing in the school spelling bee this Friday. Fingers crossed!

3. Chuck Musciano - June 3, 2009


Argh! Hoist on my own petard!

I should point out that all the words, although arranged erroneously, were spelled correctly. Nonetheless, I am a victim of my own hasty editing moments before the post went live. Mea culpa.

In our local schools, spelling and grammar are known as “conventions.” A teacher can only take off points for “conventions” if the spelling or grammar is so egregious that he or she cannot figure out what the student was trying to say.

I also agree that different media have different standards. Spelling is not important in twitter, where lesser vowels are struck for the sake of brevity. But I’ve also received resumes with spelling errors; these go right in the trash.

Your last point hits home for me: present everything well. Look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp, even in you spelling.

Thanks for the great comment!

4. Lynn M - June 5, 2009

Follow-up/FYI: My daughter just won the school spelling bee!

5. Chuck Musciano - June 5, 2009


Hooray! Tell her I said congradulationsgreat!

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