Spelling Problems

Published April 1, 1999

How much of a problem can a minor spelling error be? Just ask Dan Quayle, whose one-time lapse in spelling the word “potato” still is called upon for an easy laugh by late night talk show hosts and newspaper cartoonists who want to disparage commentary or proposals from the former Vice President.

On the other hand, no one–at least so far–has laughed at teacher union president Bob Chase, whose recent ad in Education Week highlighted District of Columbia Mayor Tony Williams’ concern over the “perverse cultures that turn good things like the honor role [sic] into a badge of shame.”

After recently getting a tattoo, Wayne State University student Lee Williams probably wishes he’d spent more time on spelling in grade school, or at least had learned how to look up words in the dictionary. Instead of being impressed by Williams’ latest macho fashion accessory, his friend started laughing: “villain” was misspelled as “villian.” Neither Williams nor the tattoo parlor staff knew how to spell the word, and neither bothered to look it up. Williams is suing Eternal Tattoos for $25,000 in damages.

If carpenters know that it’s best to measure twice and cut once, a Houston mayoral aide now knows that it’s best to spell-check twice and print once. Last December, the aide had 2,500 copies of a 14-page Youth Education Guide printed to highlight city programs and schools. The brochure had to be recalled when other city officials found it was full of spelling and grammatical errors.

While bad spellers can create all kinds of trouble for themselves and others, sponsoring the best speller in the Americas is no guarantee that life will be trouble-free. When students from Jamaica first participated in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in 1997, one took seventh place. Then, last year, Jamaican Jody-Anne Maxwell became the first non-U.S. citizen to win the $10,000 grand prize. The Jamaicans won’t be participating this year, however, because the contest organizer has ruled them ineligible for qualifying too early.

Under a new contest rule, sponsors cannot qualify contestants before February 1 of the year of the contest. According to spelling bee director Paige Kimble, the 225 sponsors usually hold their events to qualify contestants in late March or early April. However, the Jamaican sponsor, Phillips and Phillips Stationary Supplies, qualified its students in August of the year before the contest. This gives the winning Caribbean students 172 more days to prepare for the national contest, Kimble told Education Week.

Although a Phillips and Phillips official indicated the company was willing to comply with the new rules, its sponsorship was revoked by contest officials, who said they are seeking other sponsors for next year’s bee.