Writing, Spelling, and Math Problems

Published June 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 lingers in popular culture, thanks to late night talk show hosts who want an easy laugh, and newspaper cartoonists who want to disparage the former Vice President.

On the other hand, no one–at least so far–started laughing when teacher union president Bob Chase recently wrote about the “perverse culture that turn good things like the honor role into a badge of shame.”

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’ new tattoo, his friend started laughing because villain was misspelled as “villian.” Neither Williams nor the tattoo parlor staff knew how to spell the word; they went ahead with the work without bothering 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 riddled with 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. Last year, Jamaican Jody-Anne Maxwell became the first non-U.S. citizen to win the $10,000 grand prize. This year, the team won’t be participating at all. The contest organizer has ruled Jamaican students are 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 qualifying events in late March or early April. The Jamaican sponsor, Phillips and Phillips Stationary Supplies, qualified its students in August of the year before the contest–giving the Caribbean students 172 more days to prepare, Kimble told Education Week.

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a Phillips and Phillips official indicated that the company was willing to comply with the new rules, their sponsorship was revoked by contest officials, who said they are seeking other sponsors for next year’s bee.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.