Do you know the meaning of the word “stromuhr”? It’s an instrument for measuring the velocity of blood flow. And if someone asked you to spell it (and you weren’t reading it here), would you know how?
Me neither. But it was the deciding word this year in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, won by 14-year-old Anamika Veeramani of North Royalton, Ohio. Spelling is hard for some people. Others, like Anamika, have a knack. When I was a 7th grader in upstate New York, I beat 400 classmates in my junior high spelling bee and found myself on the auditorium stage with two 8th grade boys, battling it out in my blue glasses, purple dress, and red shoes. Finally, I misspelled a word I knew perfectly well–library–accidentally leaving out the second “r.” What confusion–and relief–when the buzzer sounded and I was dismissed.
I don’t want to win awards for my spelling, I just want to spell things right, and if that means looking something up in the dictionary, so be it. A misspelled word in a business letter, report, or other document is like a stain on your shirt, a hole in your sweater. It suggests you don’t pay attention to detail. Or maybe you don’t care how you come across.
I think the secret to good spelling is good reading. If you read a lot, you notice how words are structured, you pick up new vocabulary, and you get a sense of prefixes, suffixes, roots, and rules. Train yourself to identify words you tend to misspell. For years, I would write “develope” instead of “develop”–as if an invisible force compelled me to add an extra e that I consciously knew didn’t belong. I learned to watch out for words I found troublesome. Spellcheck is a big help, but it doesn’t find everything–especially homonyms (words with the same sound but different meanings). If you’re not 100% sure how something is spelled, look it up.
On a recent assignment I noticed that my colleagues tended to mix up “complimentary” and “complementary.” The first has to do with expressing praise or providing something for free. The second means making something whole. If you write, “We offer complementary services to enhance your shopping experience,” you mean that your services help round things out. Mistakenly spell it “complimentary” and you say your services are free..
We can’t all be spelling champions like Anamika, but we can proofread our work carefully, watch out for words we tend to misspell, and use dictionaries whenever we’re in doubt.