Are poor spellers stupid?

October 21, 2011

Dear Cecil:

I'm a fairly intelligent, well-educated person with a facebook. I get SO ANNOYED when people are constantly picking out my typos and making it seem like I'm an idiot for making them. Is there actually a correlation between intelligence and how prone one is to make careless mistakes will typing? There are external factors like … my D key sometimes sticks, etc. But it's facebook, not my doctoral thesis, so the editing standards are low. And separately, is there even a correlation being a legitimately poor speller and intelligence? Aside from typing to fast and having a shoddy keyboard, i DO in fact rely on spell check pretty often, and have struggled with spelling since i was a kids. My mom always told me that Bill Clinton, although he's very intelligent, was a notoriously poor speller. At least until he practiced really, really hard, so i should to.

Cecil replies:

Usually I correct typos in the letters we publish, Lily. Yours I left alone. Not to pick on you, but we need examples of orthographical errors, and you made a heap.

The short answer to your main question is that poor spelling may, but doesn’t necessarily, indicate low intelligence. You could just be dyslexic — dyslexia being understood not merely as the tendency to transpose letters, as many inaccurately believe, but rather as a reading disability. Dyslexia is unrelated to general intelligence; those suffering from it often have a tough time spelling. (Some bad spellers are just underschooled, but per your letter that’s not you.)

How can you tell a dyslexic bad speller from an ordinary dope? There may be a way.

Some researchers categorize lexical disorders based on the type of spelling mistake made most often. One old study I came across (Finucci et al, 1983) drew a distinction between phonetic and dysphonetic errors. Phonetic mistakes are based at least loosely on the sound of the target word — “strat dop” for “straight dope,” for example. Dysphonetic mistakes are more exotic, such as adding or switching syllables, e.g., “effinemate” for “effeminate.” Sometimes it’s not easy to distinguish the two, but a crude test is this: phonetic errors make sense at a certain level, whereas dysphonetic errors just look and sound weird.

Finucci and company attempted to correlate the two types of mistake with IQ, degree of dyslexia, etc. Their conclusion: phonetic errors are the most common across the board, but dyslexics make more dysphonetic errors, indicating some kind of hiccup in lexical processing. Those making many strictly phonetic errors, on the other hand, aren’t dyslexic, they’re just not too bright.

I hasten to say researchers today generally don’t use phonetic and dysphonetic to mean the same thing Finucci did in 1983. Also, not everybody buys the idea that dyslexic and nondyslexic spelling errors can be easily distinguished. So let’s consider this a hypothesis and the following an experiment, with you, Lily, as guinea pig.

First, we sort out the mistakes in your letter:

  • Typos. You start off capitalizing “I,” then switch to lowercase. No big deal in itself. (You lowercase “Facebook,” but so does their logo, so we’ll ignore that.)
  • Omissions. You’re missing a “between” after your second “correlation.”
  • Phonetic errors. You write “will” for “while,” and twice substitute “to” for “too.”
  • Dysphonetic errors. You write “since i was a kids.”

Considered individually, these are common enough mistakes. But your letter suggests that for you they occur so frequently that people give you grief. Maybe that just means you friended a bunch of jerks. Alternatively, I notice you make excuses — Facebook standards are low, your D key sticks. So maybe you’re just careless, like all the other mopes.

But maybe not. Let’s review: (1) You’re self-conscious about your spelling and have had trouble with it all your life. (2) You’re articulate and spell well enough most of the time. (3) Your brief letter to me, in which we’ll assume you’re trying to make a good impression, by my count contains eight deviations from standard English usage. (4) If in light of (1) through (3) we discount the possibility you’re a garden-variety bad speller, collectively your mistakes take on a different character. You’d need professional testing for confirmation, but I’d say there’s some chance you’ve got a form of dyslexia, or possibly attention deficit disorder. (For what it’s worth, some think Bill Clinton also has ADD or ADHD; bad spelling’s one of the few things I haven’t seen him accused of.)

Find that comforting? You shouldn’t. This is a rough problem to have. We’re told in the era of Facebook and Twitter nobody cares about grammar and spelling. Don’t believe it. In the global conversation made possible by the Internet, the easiest way to tell the smart folk from the knuckleheads is how often they make seemingly ignorant mistakes. You can make a few and still be taken seriously. Make a lot and you won’t.

Unfair? No point moaning about it. There’s a simple solution even non-dyslexics would profit from. Read what you write before you click “send.”

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References

Drouin, M.A. “College students’ text messaging, use of textese and literacy skills” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27 (2011): 67–75.

Druin, Allison et al. “How Children Search the Internet with Keyword Interfaces” In IDC ’09, pg 89–96, New York, NY, USA, 2009. ACM.

Finucci, Joan M. et al. "Classification of Spelling Errors and Their Relationship to Reading Ability, Sex, Grade Placement, and Intelligence" Brain and Language 20 (1983): 340-355.

Jimenez, Juan E. et al. “The Relationship Between IQ and Reading Disabilities in Enlgish-Speaking Canadian and Spanish Children” Journal of Learning Disabilities 36.1 (2003): 15-23.

Landerl, Karin, and Wimmer, Heinz. “Development of Word Reading Fluency and Spelling in a Consistent Orthography: An 8-Year Follow-Up” Journal of Educational Psychology 100.1 (2008): 150–161.

Milne, R. Duncan et al. "Lexical Access and Phonological Decoding in Adult Dyslexic Subtypes" Neuropsychology 17.3 (2003): 362–368.

Moats, Louisa Cook "Spelling Error Interpretation: Beyond the Phonetic/Dysphonetic Dichotomy" Annals of Dyslexia 43 (1993): 174-185.

Raskind, Wendy H. “Current Understanding of the Genetic Basis of Reading and Spelling Disability” Learning Disability Quarterly- Understanding the Nature-Nurture Interactions in Language and Learning Differences 24.3 (2001): 141-157.

Schulte-Korne, Gerd et al. “Evidence for Linkage of Spelling Disability to Chromosome 15” Am. J. Hum. Genet. 63 (1998): 279–282.

Schulte-Korne, Gerd et al. “Familial Aggregation of Spelling Disability” J. Child Psychol. Psychiat. 37.7 (1996): 817-822.

Shankweiler, Donald et al. “Reading and spelling difficulties in high school students: Causes and consequences” Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 8 (1996): 267-294.

Vosloo, Steve. “The Effects of Texting on Literacy: Modern Scourge or Opportunity?” Shuttleworth Foundation Issue Paper, April, 2009.

Wood, C. et al. “The effect of text messaging on 9- and 10-year-old children’s reading, spelling and phonological processing skills” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27 (2011): 28–36.

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