Musings On The “You Can’t Even Spell” On-Line Debate Tactic

dooleyIn a debate on a live thread here between two esteemed commentators, one of the contestants expressed vivid annoyance when the other derided the quality of his text in a retort. I’ve witnessed this many times online, as have you, I’m sure: someone registers an opinion while making a blatant typo, a bad misspelling, a misuse of a word, or a grammar gaffe and the opponent immediately focuses on it. What is this, exactly, and is it always wrong?

1. What is it? As I mentioned on the thread in question, it’s pretty close to an  ad hominem attack once removed, right? The sense of such a comment is, “Why should I respect your opinion? You can’t even spell “inaugural!” which in turn suggests that the individual is an ignoramus rather than a worthy adversary. It needs a name though. Is there one?

2. Is the tactic ever justified? Clearly it is not fair and indeed an unethical deflection if the issue is a typo or two. Or, in my case, or six. Anyone who visits here often knows that I have a serious typo problem, paired with an even worse proof-reading problem. I have dinged job applicants for resumes and job letters that contain “your” for “you’re” and “recieve” for “receive”? Indeed I have. Is there a difference? I think so: if someone wants to make a good impression and still makes these mistakes, I am justified in concluding that this is really the best that applicant can do, or, in the alternative, that he or she doesn’t care very much.

I wasn’t blogging 2000 words a day then, however.

3. Mentioning a gaffe seems to be mandatory if the comment or text containing it was complaining about carelessness, illiteracy or stupidity generally. Again, though, what does this mean? Is it essentially another variation of an ad hominem attack: “Hey, you’re so dumb you make the same kind of error you’re bitching about! Your argument must be dumb too!”? I think it is, but it also falls in the category of “Boy, I asked for that!” In “Twelve Angry Men,” the bigoted Juror 10 derides the character of a witness, saying, “He’s an ignorant slob! He don’t even speak good English!” Whereupon the heavily-accented naturalized citizen in the group corrects him, saying, “He doesn’t even speak good English,” humiliating his fellow juror. Ethical? In that setting perhaps; generally, however, I would think that the Golden Rule should apply, but most of us can’t resist the hanging curve over the center of the plate.

4. Or are grammatical gaffes like the juror’s legitimate clues of intelligence and trustworthiness? Is someone who says don’t for doesn’t fairly judged deficient in sophistication, attentiveness, education and reason? There can be a lot of class bias in the answer to that question, but also some unavoidable logic. It is reasonable to presume that sloppiness of expression reflects deficiency of thought, and the less language one has to work with, linguists tell us, the fewer thoughts and concepts one may be able to form. When is an illiterate expression of a thought as disqualifying as a flawed thought itself? Or are they one and the same?

5. In classic European plays, the tradition is that only the fool, or the clown, speaks in dialect and lower-class jargon. Yet the fool is often given the wittiest and most enlightening speeches. There was a lesson behind that tradition, as most playwrights were (and are) closer to the middle of society than the high. Don’t mistake mode of expression for intelligence, in either direction. 

6. I wish there was a modern equivalent of Finley Peter Dunne in America today. He was a Chicago wit and social critic who often wrote in the voice of an Irish barfly, Mister Dooley, who massacred the language while making such observations as,

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

Nobody discredited Dunne’s observations by chanting, “Neener neener, he said milishy!” On the other side of the ocean and around the same time, George Bernard Shaw, in “Pygmalion”, vividly exposed the folly of mistaking the quality of speech for the quality of of human being speaking.

7. Yet there is no denying that speaking and writing correct English, properly spelled and punctuated is more to be desired than the opposite, and that these are skills and habits worth developing. Are we dedicated sufficiently to that goal to accept corrections from a debate adversary as a gift rather than a provocation?

37 thoughts on “Musings On The “You Can’t Even Spell” On-Line Debate Tactic

  1. Well I admit that I am a lousy speller. Probably because I am left handed or something. It sticks in my craw when some pedant makes a big deal of a typo or something I’ve misspelled. I managed to earn an advanced degree and had a long career as a professional in a school district. My observation is that people that use this tactic are smart ass jerks and probably not that intelligent themselves.

    • Former English teacher (and nephew and grand child of teachers) and parent and grand father here. Correcting grammatical mistake one’s kids is an ethical imperative but must be done so as not to embarrass them, which is counter productive anyway. Weaponized grammatical correction is never acceptable. If a person who cain’t spayel or write so dang good is making a stupid point, attack their point.

      But to let your kids go into the world ill prepared is wrong. I enjoy watching my kids correct their kids’ grammar.

      • English deserves to be done correctly. It really is an elegant language. I know a bit of Spanish and Italian, being the child of an Italian immigrant dad and the ex-husband of a Spaniard, and to me they seem coarse and unwieldy by comparison. My ability to use proper grammar and syntax I attribute more to lots of reading and acquiring an ear for it, rather than having proper schooling in English. That, and my one-fingered approach to typing decreasing my error rate.

  2. Early in my commenting on blogs I misspelled a word. The blogger was unmerciful in his contempt. I am a very poor speller. Since then, if it’s humanly possible I look up every word I’m not sure of. I make grammar mistakes as well, but less often. But, I’ve noticed since then that poor grammar and spelling are human flaws not character flaws. And, even people who gleefully point out the grammar and spelling errors of others manage to mess up occasionally. Once you’ve made a big deal about someone else’s spelling or grammar you’d better be perfect at both.

  3. Anyone who visits here often knows that I have a serious typo problem, paired with an even worse proof-reading problem.

    Yes, e.g. another recent post’s “In the alternative, he needs to refuse to work for Fox unless the network agrees to allow him full reign [emphasis added] to say and write what he believes on his website, and to allow others to do so as well”. But it is worth pointing out such errors anyway, as discreetly as practical, not as a tactic but (as now) as part of feedback to reduce error – particularly when the error is becoming widespread, to make an example for others to learn from as well, since those in such error may wrongly believe it correct.

    Over and above that, some errors may – in context – have what you have termed “signature significance” (which may touch on your point 4), and some (like the meaning of “cockney”) may require a blast to get the point over at all; the results of that effort suggest that the answer to “Are we dedicated sufficiently to that goal to accept corrections from a debate adversary as a gift rather than a provocation?” is no, at least around here (which is why I have so far foreborne to correct the insular misunderstandings that emerged when I commented on early to middle nineteenth century U.S. practice as recorded at the time or just after).

    But as a tactic? There, I only see it as constructive on those occasions when nuance and precision really do matter. It strikes me as more likely to come up as a counterblast to someone making just such a charge and being guilty of the same thing (your point 3); who comes to linguistic equity must come with clean hands.

    • ARRGH!!! Rein/reign again! I know I’ve done this before. I don’t understand why both aren’t correct, and why I have to stick to the metaphor “free rein” rather than the direct description. This isn’t a typo or a misuse, exactly—it’s a subconscious brain rebellion. I get “free rein,” but isn’t free reign also correct in a sentence like “In the alternative, he needs to refuse to work for Fox unless the network agrees to allow him full rein/reign to say and write what he believes on his website, and to allow others to do so as well” ? Carlson owns the website and his word is law: with reign, the sentence means “In the alternative, he needs to refuse to work for Fox unless the network agrees to allow him full AUTHORITY to say and write what he believes on his website, and to allow others to do so as well.” I think that’s a correct use of “reign.” In fact, “full reign” makes more sense than “full rein” (as opposed to free rein) and I don’t know why I just changed it. I do know: I’ve also made the free rein/reign mistake for the reason explained. But this wasn’t it. Now that I think about it, I’m changing the damn thing back to reign.

      Rein/reign go away
      Come back another day.

      • Free rein is the correct phrase of course — letting your horse take the lead. Free reign doesn’t make sense — either you are a monarch or you’re not — and if you are a monarch you can do whatever you want. (And no, let’s not discuss constitutional monarchies — it’s too early in the morning.)

          • Gonna Jack Marshallize you here, Jack. As Beth says, it’s “free rein.” A horse riding metaphor. Free reign is interesting but a malapropism. Rebelling against common sense and standard usage is unbecoming of an intelligent, articulate adult. More like something my six year old grandson might argue. Of course his then young father asked my wife and me “Why does everyone call [then President] Arnold Reagan Ronald Reagan?”


            (Analogously, I’ve always gotten a kick out of “to the manor born.” Couldn’t it be “to the manner born?” Is it? Hahahahahahaha.)

            • Explain to me why just because a phrase has become a cliche, I have to use it, and can’t use a similar sounding phrase that means something else? I’m not debating “free rein.” What I wrote was “full reign.” What does “Full rein” mean? It’s not a malapropism if it means exactly what I intend, and the words support me.

              • Per Joe68’s comment above: “English deserves to be done correctly. It really is an elegant language.”

                You and I are on opposite sides of this. You think using “disrespect” as a verb is an acceptable enhancement of English. I think it’s an abomination.

              • I’m with Jack on the “full reign” concept. I’m a horseman, and I didn’t think he meant to say “free rein” when I read it; I thought “full authority.”

  4. I play the Spelling Nazi on my correspondents all the time. Drives ’em nuts! However, it’s intended as a nudge in the ribs, not a weapon of debate. If you honestly believe that the other guy is dumb or a fanatic ideologue, just don’t bother with him. There’s nothing to gain, anyway.

  5. Unless the point being discussed has to do with intelligence/education, etc., or if the grammar/spelling mistakes create an insurmountable obstacle to comprehension, debate the point, not the usage. That being said, in highly formal situations one should always, always do their utmost to write and speak in Standard American English (or Standard British English, or whatever, based on where you’re from).
    Just because of the nature of this post, I have to point out a typo, sorry. Under #4, “the fewer thoughts and concepts one my be able to form,” obviously “my” should be “may.”

  6. If you honestly believe that the other guy is dumb or a fanatic ideologue, just don’t bother with him. There’s nothing to gain, anyway.


  7. In debate circles, what you are referring to is a “Nitpick”. It is generally considered to be a foul debate tactic. Rather than confront the substance of what someone is saying, the Nitpick will comb through a post looking for minor grammatical errors and focus on those instead.

    I would venture to say that its legitimate in cases where a poster has the writing ability of, say, an 8 year old whacked out on LSD.

    • I used to think it was a tactic, designed to unsettle you and eventually get you to explode and make a complete ass of yourself in front of the world (I don’t need much help with that, ha ha!), but I’ve come to realize that it can also mean that your adversary is running out of substance. I’ll usually make a self-denigrating joke about it, realize that I’ve just caught the scent of fresh blood,then redouble my effort at painting him/her into a corner.

  8. “an 8 year old whacked out on LSD”

    Of which there are a great many. It’s why I never, ever, look at any comments on any mass media websites.

  9. I have learned (finally) that your typos are not intended, and are generally, a result of either entering the post on the virtual keyboard of an iPad or just typing too fast. If your meaning is clear, I won’t mention it. Couple of posts ago, I asked about a missing ‘not’ and did so because the missing word rotated the meaning of the sentence 180 degrees. My guess was that the word should have been there, but I wanted to make sure, so I asked. Note that when I do so, it is for clarification, not to denigrate. Clarification is ethical, in my mind, denigration is not.

      • Yes, unlike with the written word, errors in typing are more likely to occur as a result of one’s motor skills than as a result of one’s ability to spell.
        So, yes, in formal communications, accuracy is the goal. However, typos in informal matters (such as a blog) easily get chalked up to fat fingers, speed, muscle memory errors, or the like.

  10. If it’s writing where perfection seriously matters, I’m going to have someone else proofread and suggest edits.

    Even the most meticulous writer is human, with a lazy biological brain. Read the same sentence you wrote five times, and your mind will default to repeating what you intended to say instead of the words on screen or on the page. There is also a category of errors everyone is wired to miss, such as the classic “the the” split at the end of a line of text, which some percentage of readers are statistically likely to pick up on after enough views. Good luck catching those yourself, especially if you don’t have the luxury of running your prose through an external word processor.

    No one, however, is going to put up with reviewing every comment I post online, unless I can afford to pay them for their time; I don’t see that happening for most people, myself included. As an online debate tactic, being a grammar / spelling nazi for the sake of an ad hominem attack is unethical gotcha. Other situations are open to debate.

    • This I concur with. Even spoken conversation is riddled with misspeaks, ums, and stumbles. We simply correct these on the fly, and few notice. With casual internet written speak, we should tolerate at least as much.

      What is terrifying though is when public figures cannot be bothered to proof read major quotes they wish to post. Elizabeth Warren posted some atrocious grammatical error in a two line graphic in response to some serious issue a few years ago. The gist of her statement was that everyone who disagreed with her was a misogynistic idiot. Her blatant grammatical error in rushing to post this to her official Facebook page, I think, is especially indicative of the contempt she has for most voters.

      I of course made a typo responding to the post to point this out…

  11. Anyway, to the pedants out there, I leave you with this: Winston Churchill, JFK, and Albert Einstein were poor spellers. I don’t think any of them would be at the low end of the i.q, range.

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