Mistletoe, Jimmy Stewart and Spelling

Anybody can misspell or misuse a word, but smart people take the time to learn about the words and phrases they use, which can yield some surprising stuff    – and avoid some personal embarrassment.

Anybody can misspell or misuse a word, but smart people take the time to learn about the words and phrases they use, which can yield some surprising stuff  – and avoid some personal embarrassment.

Nothing befits the eve of a new year than a few classics like mistletoe, "It’s a Wonderful Life" and bad spelling.

You can get kissed under mistletoe, cry while watching Jimmy Stewart and wince when you look at all your misspellings in the past year. Especially since most of them had red lines under them.

Let’s be honest, anyone can misspell a word, sometimes with the overzealous help of AutoCorrect. But don’t let excuses obscure the truth – a lot of people don’t know how to spell and don’t seem to care. Big mistake.

Even if many people let misspelling slide by their eye, there are still those who don’t. Pity you if that minority includes a boss, a client, a dear friend – or a target audience.

My Waterloo moment with spelling came in the 5th grade with Ms. Schmidt. Actually spelling a word correctly wasn’t enough for her. You also had to spell the word phonetically, identify whether it was a verb or noun and give a definition. On her most wicked days, Ms. Schmidt demanded that we look up the word’s etymology. That meant you had to know your spelling words forwards and backwards. Some students hated it. I fell in love with words.

Who knew the power of words to convey meaning, to reflect history, to preserve culture. When you went inside words, you uncovered mysteries you never knew existed. You saw their ability to create a unified perception of things and thoughts. You recognized their DNA through the layers of time and conquest. You saw them as the building blocks for ideas.

You get the drift. I think words are pretty important. So when someone butchers how a word is spelled or uses the wrong word, it pains me like watching someone beat a dog.

Just this week, members of my staff confused “compliment” for “complement."  My daughter wrote a blog and used “soul” when she meant “sole.” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted “unpresidented” instead of “unprecedented” in calling out the Chinese. I routinely see names misspelled, words misused and grammar that would have earned an “F” in my grade school language arts class.

Step up, people. Language is a gift. Words bring us closer as people by revealing our reflections, big thoughts and funny jokes, not to mention everyday parts of life, such as “Hey, breakfast is ready." Have you ever thought how unfunny a stand-up comic would be without words?

I’m a hard sell on the idea that spelling doesn’t matter anymore. That’s the same as telling me the Constitution doesn’t matter anymore. If spelling doesn’t matter to you, it’s most likely because you never bothered to understand spelling. Why is a word spelled the way it is? Where did the word come from? How has its usage changed over the years? Why do words with similar meaning convey nuanced differences? How did we get so many words in the English language?

The answers to those questions are freighted with significance. Just tackle one with some curiosity and find out.

Meanwhile, think about this: Words and language are constantly evolving. The evolution of words marks seminal change in our society. Our words mirror, in many ways, who we are and who we are becoming.

So, get out of your own way, take words and spelling seriously. If you don’t know what a word means, look it up. If you aren’t sure how a word is spelled, find out. If you are curious about where a word or phrase came from, take the time to track it down.

Your curiosity will pay dividends. Your spelling almost certainly will improve. Impress your boss, avoid embarrassment and take pity on those of us who cringe when words are mangled. 


Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.