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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.

Pedantic Punctuation, Part 1: The Serial Comma March 14, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I am a stickler for correct spelling and punctuation.1 There is no greater indication of the decline of modern civilization than the lax attitude taken towards these foundations of correct communication.  Recently, my son took the North Carolina State Writing Test for seventh graders.  Among the various metrics used to grade the test was “Conventions.” Conventions are spelling and grammar; they comprise 10% of the score.  The only way to not get full credit for Conventions is to commit some error so egregious that it renders your essay completely unintelligible.  As long as the student “comes close” to correct spelling and grammar, modern educators are satisfied.

Ahem.  Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are not “conventions.”  They are rules, well defined, easily taught, and easily applied.  They indicate that the author actually cares about his work and respects the intelligence and time of his audience.  While incorrect essays in school may be overlooked by teachers, incorrect communication in the real world is viewed at best as sloppy and at worst, illiterate.

To that end, and to inaugurate a new series of occasional posts, let us address the serial comma.

The serial comma is the comma that should always be placed after the next-to-last element of a sequence, just before the “and” or “or” that joins the last element to the sequence.  This is not an optional comma, to be deleted by the sloppy or careless writer as is their wont.  It is a required element that always makes the sequence clear and unambiguous.2

Consider the sequence

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni and cheese and crackers.

Confusing?  Of course!  We’ll never settle on a dinner menu. But the serial comma removes all doubt:

My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni and cheese, and crackers.


My favorite foods are steak, shrimp, macaroni, and cheese and crackers.

There are some who will insist that most sentences do not suffer from this kind of potential problem and are thus exempt from the serial comma rule, as if commas are in short supply and must be hoarded for such crucial uses.  In fact, punctuation should be consistently applied throughout a document so that all lists use serial commas all the time.

Next time on Pedantic Punctuation: inappropriate use of quotation marks for “emphasis!”

1 As a result, this post is almost guaranteed to have some spelling, punctuation, or grammar error.
2 Contrarians can create sentences that are ambiguous with or without the serial comma, but these are fundamentally unsound sentences that should be rewritten anyway.