Sunday, June 01, 2008

Word Games

Deb and I watched the national spelling bee on TV Friday night, live from Washington DC. I don't think I'd ever seen it before. Brought back memories, and not just of the spelling bees (in which I did well, but did not excel).

Happy memories... learning new words and coming up with sentences for weekly spelling tests in grade school. Parallelogram! Argyle!

Shameful memories... the way I lost my temper doing the same exercises for a high school class called Precollege Writing, which I felt was below me (teacher made me stay after class to talk about my attitude!)

Anxious memories... the pop quiz in seventh grade where we had to say which words were spelled with an IE, which with an EI? (Several clever kids figured out that the teacher had set them up so they alternated - but not me).

I'd still say these things are worth studying. But even by the time I had to take a spelling test to get into journalism school, such skills were becoming less important. Spell checking had come into its own.

So many languages are more predictable than English. Can you imagine a spelling bee in Spanish? Or Indonesian? Or Dutch? You could learn to pronounce and write any of those languages quite easily because they consistently follow their own rules. Not English. We have words like lagniappe and triptych, words derived from related languages that nevertheless have radically different spelling patterns. The only thing to do - if you aspire to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, that is - is get yourself a coach, and read a couple dozen pages of the dictionary every day.

The other day Deb came home from the store with a CD of computer word games. "Here," she said, "load this on your computer." I've spent a shameful amount of time trying to master the anagram game. It has strange ideas of what constitutes English and what doesn't. I had to turn off the sound effects... the animated jungle monkeys kept telling me, scornfully, "that's not a word!"

"Is too!" I'd whine back.

For example, from the letters NYCROA

I came up with:


But the program rejected CRAY, ROC, COY, YON, RACY and NARY ...

And, lest I think more highly of myself than I ought to, let me confess I didn't see (not in the 90 seconds alloted) RAYON, NAY, ANY, CORN, CORNY, ACORN, and YARN!

Picture: Champion speller Sameer Mishra with his trophy (which is a good example of a guerdon. That was the word on which he won the tournament, beating Sidharth Chand, who misspelled prosopopoeia).


Megan Noel said...

oh, i did not figure out the IE and EI test either. drat that class.

i have been reading resumes this week (34 of them) and i don't think these people even used a spell check >(

and i edited 3 (or was it 4) more publications this week. i can't read anything any more without checking the captions! and you know, i am not a gifted speller or grammatician. is that a word? it should be. of course i am a little better with CAPS when i need to be!

Marti said...

There is a word, Meg - it's

Many of the applications and correspondence from these teams I'm helping to train next week show a similar lack of attention to details like spelling and grammar. I do wonder if some of these guys are going to be slow on the uptake during training or unable to do quality work on the field. But it's best for me to put my prejudices aside and just remember they may need someone to come along after them in their areas of apparent weakness.

Sometimes those that come across the sharpest on the applications lack the social intelligence, guts, or flexibility that are more important in the kind of work we do than good writing skills. One of our past teams had a guy who couldn't type and was weak academically. His teammates treated him like he was stupid. But he was quite brilliant and skilled in other important respects and would probably have been my first pick if I were bringing one of them along on a team I was leading. His greatest strengths were in my areas of greatest weakness, and vice versa.

And sometimes academic sharpness is a bad sign, in our work; it's the dean's list types that have the hardest time with culture shock, ambiguity, leadership mistakes, etc. Those who are a little laid back, maybe even a touch lazy, end up doing better than those who are ambitious and driven. In the end of course everybody brings something different to the table, and it usually works out pretty well.

There may be parallels in your work as well. So yeah, it's a bad sign that they turn in sloppy resumes, but you'll need to read between the lines looking for the skills that are more important.

One thing that surprises me is that almost all of the team members we've got this time around - and these guys are in their 20s - put two spaces after a period. I would think that people educated in the last decade would have learned not to do that. But maybe the change from double- to single-spacing between sentences is not as universal as I thought.

Megan Noel said...

er, i still use 2 spaces. plus some weird citadel formatting sometimes! but i have an excuse :) and i would not do it in formal writing. :)