This wasn’t the president’s first run-in with spelling. Mr. Trump says he has the best words, but he appears to be very bad at remembering how to correctly put them together. People have caught at least a half-dozen basic spelling errors in his tweets (and more in other statements by his staff), some of them small (“counsel” as “council,” “gas” instead of “has,” “tapp” for “tap”), some large (“unpresidented” for “unprecedented,” “honered” for “honored”) and some plain inscrutable (“covfefe”).
To which I say this: Lett Trrump bee.
There are lots of reasons to criticize Mr. Trump’s policies, conduct and statements, especially his tweets. But we should lay off his spelling.
Actually, we should lay off everyone’s spelling. In a digital age of autocorrect and electronic publications that can be edited from afar, not to mention social media platforms that prize authenticity and immediacy over polish, misspelling has become a mostly forgivable mistake. You simply do not need to be able to spell as well as people once had to, because we now have tools that can catch and correct our errors — so it’s just not a big deal if, on your first draft, you write “heel” instead of “heal.”
People are very attached to spelling, of course. When I first floated the idea that politicians’ misspelling was a forgivable sin, I was dragged over the coals for it on Twitter. My wife got so upset that she quit talking to me for most of a day. When I emailed my editor to say I wanted to defend Mr. Trump’s misspelling, she wrote back, “You should listen to your wife.”
So I did what I normally do when confronted with people who are wrong on the internet: I researched the subject. I looked at the history of standardized spelling and what misspelling says about you cognitively. I uncovered a rich history of political misspelling. And I read a book by an Oxford professor on the shifting cultural attitudes toward spelling and then talked to him for a long time.
The upshot: It turns out, as Mr. Trump might say, I was 1oo percent right. Here are three reasons you should not worry about Mr. Trump’s spelling — or anyone’s, really.
If you don’t misspell on Twitter, you’re doing it wrong.
Twitter is a mess. On basic elementary-school requisites like spelling, punctuation and the completeness of sentences, the service looks like someone vomited alphabet soup.
There are technical reasons for this. Twitter limits posts to 140 characters, and most tweets are produced and consumed quickly on mobile phones, encouraging abbreviations, acronyms, “textese” (LOL, OMG, etc.) and other linguistic shortcuts, not to mention both human-caused and autocorrected typos.
Yet for the service’s small but addicted band of loyalists (including yours truly), Twitter’s syntactic ugliness is a necessary side effect of its essential point, which is immediacy. Twitter’s appeal lies in its being a place to record one’s instant and primal observations on events happening around you — it’s something like the first draft of the world’s thoughts.
This immediacy inevitably invites error and overreach, which is often much of the fun of it; Twitter is watching someone say the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time, making fun of him, forgetting about it, and then doing the whole thing all over again tomorrow.
If immediacy invites error, then error, on Twitter, conversely suggests humanity. One mistake many politicians and brands make when they get to Twitter is to compose tweets as if they are issuing news releases. They use complete sentences and big words, and the whole tone is off, like wearing a three-piece suit to a spring-break party.
Some of the best Twitter accounts, by contrast, deploy textual sloppiness on purpose, to affect a kind of endearing earnestness that might get lost in more polished prose. Look at Jonny Sun, a Twitter comedian who plays an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.”
I’m not suggesting Mr. Trump is misspelling on purpose (though I suspect we’re within a few years of politicians doing just that to sound more real). Still, his misspellings clearly add a sheen of authenticity. They offer an unvarnished, unfiltered view of his mind, partly because we know that he is posting himself — which we can tell because of all the errors, like the time he misspelled “hereby” as “hear by,” and then deleted it and misspelled it again as “hearby,” before finally getting it right on the third try.
Criticizing spelling is elitist.
You may argue that it’s all well and good for ordinary people to be careless about spelling on Twitter, but that a president should hold himself above the freewheeling mores of social media. Stodgy people tend to offer some version of this argument every time a politician uses a communications medium in some novel way. (Fogies were aghast when Bill Clinton addressed the boxers-or-briefs mystery on MTV in 1994, or when Barack Obama was interviewed by several YouTube stars, including GloZell Green, who once bathed in a bathtub full of cereal.)
Yet there is an even deeper sort of elitism underlying the criticism of spelling mistakes. It stems from people correlating accurate spelling with a good education and outsize intelligence, which is actually incorrect.
There is not much scientific evidence to suggest that spelling well is connected to high intelligence. In the same way that some people are naturally better at arithmetic than others, some are naturally better spellers than others (and some people have lexical disabilities, like dyslexia, that make spelling even more difficult). But if you spell well, you can still do lots of dumb things, and if you spell poorly, you can still be very smart.
Compared with numerical mistakes, though, misspelling hogs attention. Mr. Obama once said that he had visited 57 states and had two more to go — and everyone but his craziest critics understood that he had simply had a brain fart. But when Dan Quayle thought “potato” was spelled “potatoe,” it was basically the end for him — proof that the vice president of the United States was a dim bulb.
In “Does Spelling Matter?” Simon Horobin, a professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, said people were not always this intractable about spelling. Standardized spelling in English came about because of a technological advance — the printing press, which created a greater need for a common way of rendering words.
Still, for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, spelling was often something that only typesetters thought about. People would generally use their own spellings in private letters and diaries. This was true even of presidents, some of whom were extremely careless about spelling. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, misspelled pretty much everything, including the names of Civil War battlefields (“Fort Sumpter” instead of “Sumter”); wrote “inaugural” as “inaugeral”; and confused “emancipation” and “immancipation.”
It was only in the 20th century, as spelling became a mainstay of the modern public education system, that the ability to memorize how certain words should be rendered began to take on extra social weight.
“Suddenly it became a badge of your education and status,” Mr. Horobin said. “It mistakes what good spelling is about. It’s essentially a memory test, an exercise in rote learning — but we now take it for so much more than that.”
Focusing on spelling blinds us to content.
Standardized spelling has been with English for at least a few hundred years, and it has mostly served us well. So I understand that the idea of abandoning it, or at least relaxing our adherence to it, may sound frightening, like the first step on a short march to civilizational decline.
At the very least, there’s the brown M & M argument for spelling — if someone spells well, it shows they have taken care to write something, in the same way that the rock band Van Halen would prohibit brown M & Ms in its concert rider as a way to test the attention to detail of its stage crew. That Mr. Trump and his staff often misspell is a sign that they may be careless about everything else.
That’s a fair argument. But I’ll end with two things.
First, everyone’s sloppy sometimes, and more so these days, because our devices all but encourage it. Mr. Obama and his staff made spelling errors and other textual mistakes, too; one of his communications advisers once made one of the worst typos imaginable on Twitter, writing “bigger” with an N.
Second, there’s little evidence that how one types on electronic media has much to say about how one functions otherwise. One study, in fact, showed that kids who frequently used “textese” tended to be better at grammar than those who didn’t.
All of this suggests that we are simply giving too much weight to spelling and other typographical mistakes. Focus on what people say, not how they spell it.
“You’ll see this often on Twitter,” Mr. Horobin said. “Someone will post something that’s terrible — racist or homophobic or something — and a lot of people will respond to it with, aha, I see you have misspelled the word ‘its,’ and so I will not even engage with your argument. It seems to me that you’re missing the point. A racist tweet is a racist tweet, whether it’s spelled correctly or not.”
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