Judging a person on their spelling and grammar reveals more about you than it does about them

I know a woman who’s an incredible artist, working across a range of mediums. In her job as a secondary school teacher, her role is to engage students with art, encourage critical thinking and develop their imaginations and creative expression.

Working in a depressed part of outer London, she believes in her students and cares profoundly about them and their future. She has a strong sense of community and always makes time for a smile and chat with people, regardless of their status or pay grade.

She’s a wonderful person – but her spelling is atrocious.

I know a man who’s a painter and decorator by trade. He’s been involved with Labour activism for over 30 years and wakes up every morning at 5am to wade through hefty political and historical tomes that I wouldn’t even attempt to understand. He can explain the plight of the Palestinian people or the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland with clarity and nuance.

He’s one of the most intelligent people I know – but his spelling is atrocious.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

It seems obvious to me, a relatively educated person, that judging a person’s “intelligence” (itself a profoundly subjective and loaded term) on their ability to spell a word correctly or construct a sentence with the correct verbs, nouns and clauses is deeply flawed.

Despite this, I regularly see people attacked and their entire argument renounced for a misplaced apostrophe or misspelt word.

Recent findings by researchers at Tilberg University in the Netherlands support this. They found that online daters were turned off by “poor spelling, typos and information diction”. Typographical mistakes, such as writing “teh” instead of “the” were construed as a sign of inattentiveness, resulting in lower scores on perceived attractiveness.

In no sense am I disregarding the value of clear communication. Anyone who has seen the many excellent examples emphasising the importance of a well-placed apostrophe (“Grammar: the difference between knowing your sh*t and knowing you’re sh*t”, is one such belter) knows that a small symbol can cause tectonic shifts in the meaning of a sentence.

Clear and concise spelling and grammar are something we should aspire to in our efforts to improve understanding in the world.

But pointing out typographical errors is increasingly used as a ‘gotcha’ to undermine an ordinary person’s entire argument or opinion. This is particularly common on social media where even apparently intelligent folks do this for sport.

And so to “intelligence”. Despite what we may have been taught at school (and indeed, despite what some political leaders may espouse as a worryingly effective distraction technique), intelligence does not necessarily equate to your ability to separate an atom, quote pages of Latin or get an unbroken string of top grades in your GCSEs.

Intelligence can mean many things – and they don’t always involve a grade.

From something as simple as being able to grow vegetables to something as complex as caring for a child, or the ability to assess when someone is feeling uncomfortable or sad and working to help them, we all perform tasks of differing but immense value that keep the world functioning.

By reducing intelligence to someone’s ability to spell “definitely” correctly – one of the top words in the English language that people consistently struggle with – we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice.

Learning difficulties such as dyslexia are just one of many reasons why some people struggle with words more than others. People whose second or even third language is English, or those whose early learning experiences were negative – or who didn’t finish school – may also be less than proficient when it comes to matters typographical.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a person’s skills lying in photography, or caring or computers, rather than words. This is no justification for demeaning or dismissing a person’s perspective. Rejecting contributions from those who may not have the same literacy privileges that you enjoy is misguided and elitist. 

Discounting a potential romantic partner based on their spelling ability confounds me. Finding a person who you can tolerate enough to spend time with is a hard enough challenge, and effectively turning down a proportion of the population based on such whimsy seems cavalier in the extreme.

Aside from editors and authors whose literal job it is to scour reams of text for literary bloopers, everyday folk who work themselves up into a near frenzy over a rogue modifier need to give everyone – and themselves – a break.

I can’t help but fear for those with such an intense desire for perfection, an impossible goal that we would all do well to resign with immediate effect.

So, next time you find yourself crowing at a person’s split infinitive – even if that person is being a douchebag – restrain yourself, friend. Look beyond the letters and symbols on the screen and judge them on the content of their message, not their use (or misuse) of punctuation.

Ridiculing someone on this basis reveals more about you than you might realise – and, well, you’re smarter than that. Right?


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