By BILL DUNCAN
When I was teaching journalism at Umpqua Community College I took the spell-checker software off the computers in the journalism department in an effort to force students to use the dictionary rather than the spell-checker crutch. My effort was thwarted by the students who would go four buildings away from the journalism department in Snyder Hall to "spell-check" their stories in the computer lab.
Invariably I uncovered their conspiracy because the spell-checker accepted words it couldn’t distinguish as "their" for "there" and a host of other words like "brake" for "break."
Correct spelling, once drilled into students by stern secondary school English teachers, now appears to be out for recess. One only has to read a newspaper today, or for that matter a magazine article or even a book to understand this. Let’s not even discuss e-mails.
Michael Arrieta-Walden, writing in his column "The Public Editor" in the Oregonian daily newspaper in Portland, Ore., noted:
"The most common error we correct in The Oregonian stems from misidentifying a person. And yet it’s probably the most crucial information about a subject we can provide.
"We (The Oregonian) recently passed 100 misspelled names or misidentified people for 2005. The newspaper has struggled for years to combat the problem with names; we corrected 143 names in 2004 and 127 names in 2003."
In my own J-school years, dating back to the late 1940s, the journalism professor, Lee B. McConnville, a hard-nosed retired Los Angeles Times editor, would literally scream from the podium the importance of getting names spelled correctly. He would say: "The average person only gets their name in the newspaper three times in their lives — when they are born, when they are married and when they are buried. Is it asking too much to get their names spelled correctly?"
Perhaps this is why I believe we all should toss the spell-checker in the waste basket and use our brains along with a dictionary. There was a time when one could depend on the telephone directory for looking up the spelling of people’s names. Today even that is a flawed source.
Now before you get the impression that this old professor never misspells a name — or a word — let me assure you that is not so.
I am still embarrassed over misspelling my dear friend, Ilsa Ricketts, in one of my columns. I want to do a profile story on Ilsa for The Senior Times, a monthly magazine section I edit that enfolds in The Daily News-Review in Roseburg, Ore. each first Monday, but live in fear her name will again be misspelled. (Note: my computer spell-checker said I had misspelled Ilsa and listed as corrections, "ills," "Lisa," and "Lea.")
There was a time when we old journalists alerted the Linotype operator and the proofreader (both of these items date me) that the spelling was correct by placing in parenthesis (cq) or (sic) behind the word or name. That is no longer feasible in computer typesetting.
Arrieta-Walden noted in his column that reporters and editors are expected to put a note next to the names to indicate the spelling has been double-checked. It apparently isn’t working.
The following is a excerpt from a story in the November 2005 issue of The Reader’s Digest in a story entitled "Fleeced! Your Money For This? A hard look at the silly and scandalous ways your tax dollars are squandered," by Dale Van Atta:
Five years ago, when city officials in Livermore, California, needed an artist to create a unique mosaic for the entrance to its new library, they turned td Maria Alquilar. An artist now based in Miami, she had completed successful projects for other cities, and agreed to the job for a cool $40,000. It took a year, but Alquilar finished her work of art: a colorful 18-foot mosaic, the centerpiece of which is a tree of life surrounded by icons representing history, art, literature and science — and which contains 175 names and cultural references.
Everything seemed to be fine at first — until shortly after the library’s opening, when astute citizens realized that the mosaic contained 11 misspelled words. Adding insult to injury, among those misspelled words were some famous names, like "Eistein" (Einstein) and "Shakespere" (Shakespeare). All the names and words of the mosaic had been spelled correctly in the sketches Alquilar had prepared. So was she just sloppy when she was completing the mosaic? She admitted to The San Francisco Chronicle that she had noticed that "Einstein" was misspelled but decided to ignore the gaffe. "I just wasn’t concerned," she said. "None of us are particularly good spellers anymore because of computers." Ah, yes, the old "spell-check defense: just what every library wants to hear.
Unfortunately, California state law forbids city officials from changing installed public art without the artist’s consent. And Alquilar, upset with angry e-mails and criticism, at first refused to fix it, citing artistic license. Then the embarrassed and hamstrung city officials offered her $6,000 (on top of her original $40,000 paycheck), plus travel expenses, to come back and fix the errors. Alquilar finally took the money, returned to Livermore in August (15 months after the opening), and corrected the spelling mistakes. Maybe Alquilar thought it was all much ado about nothing, but it does’t take an Einstein to know that the entrance to a library, which serves as the symbolic center of a community’s quest for literacy, should set a letter-perfect example. Alquilar, being a well-educated former school teacher, should have known that. Unfortunately, after local taxpayers coughed up another six grand for her, Alquilar’s lesson may be that it pays to misspell.
One final note: Prehaps the reason why I want spell-checkers relegated to the junk heap may be because each time my name is put through the spell-checker it asks if it should not be "Dunce" instead of Duncan. I guess that is better than what happens to my friend Maryjean Anderson. The spell -checker suggests Maryjean should be "marijuana."