Saturday, April 8, 2017

Was Mark Twain right?

There’s a quotation (that comes in several versions) attributed (without supporting evidence) to the great Western writer Mark Twain: “I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.”
It seems that attitude is becoming popular among American writers.
As a sometimes book reviewer and writing contest judge, I read a lot of books. And more and more, I find a lot of editing errors. Punctuation is often sloppy. Sentence construction is sometimes unfathomable. Word choice questionable.
And correct spelling overlooked.
Letters in a word might be inverted. A related—but wrong—word form might be used. A homonym might be used in place of the correct word. Occasionally I come across a word that is correctly spelled but is the altogether wrong word—not a homonym, exactly, but sometimes it’s a word close enough to what the author intended that I can figure out what it should be.
I find such easy-to-correct errors in traditionally published books, but rarely. They appear more often in books from small publishers. But they appear most often in self-published books. Sometimes, in self-published books in which the author acknowledges an editor or proofreader or both. They should ask for a refund.
But, really, they should fix these things themselves. Everybody makes mistakes, and errors have a way of slipping through. There is no excuse, however, for outright sloppiness. Spell checkers help, but can’t flag a correctly spelled word used incorrectly. Use a dictionary if you’re not absolutely sure. It only takes a minute. Simple spelling errors should be as rare as hen’s teeth in a published book.
Truth be told, out of respect for readers they should be just as rare in online postings, emails, letters, and everything we write—but that may be too much to ask. Especially in a time when pointing out online mistakes creates furor and derision.
If you believe the aforementioned quotation attributed to Mark Twain, he would be delighted with the current state of affairs when it comes to spelling.
But I doubt it.


  1. Amen, brother! I don't think I have read a single book in my memory of the last 20 or so years that I haven't caught at least one error. Not that I don't make errors, but I don't have a proof reader. It makes me crazy as Susan knows all too well. I often correct those who are complaining on line as I think they should pretend to be perfect if they are going to criticize others. I know I pretend all the time. haha But, I'm just considered a cranky old lady - old age has benefits.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Being crotchety is one of the benefits of old age.

  2. This is a pet peeve of mine too, Rod. Thanks for calling attention to the declining health of the written word.

  3. Twain was just funning us. Not for the first or last time.

    Much more important: He said, and this one he meant:The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lighting bug."

    1. Thanks, Win. One of favorite Mark Twain sayings.