Repentant linguist is repentant…to a point.

Allow me to start with an anecdote from my post-college days working as a temp at Cambridge University Press. My job was to enter book orders, both individual and commercial. Academic and professional conferences generated huge stacks of individual orders and I would be entering them for days.

After one such conference, I found that I was entering a book order for Noam Chomsky, the man responsible for probably the majority of the material I’d learned for my brand new BA in Linguistics. There was only one title selected, and I moved on to enter the shipping information.

There were scratch-outs everywhere. Noam Chomsky filled out the address form incorrectly. He also messed up when adding in the tax.

We all make silly mistakes. No one is immune. Not even Noam.

If the cast of the various Law and Order versions can cross over, then so can I!

When I got the idea for A Modern Day Dinosaur, I was hoping that I could maintain a distinctly separate focus from As a Linguist, but also occasionally find some crossover material. I never thought that this would happen with my very first post.

In case you didn’t catch it, my first content post at the new site (Oh paper, I just can’t quit ya) described my love for stationery supplies and my annoyance at a recent MSN Living’s article that tells us that ‘clinging to low-tech behaviors’ is considered a bad habit (oh, but it might not be so bad after all! Shocker!)

I misspelled stationery throughout the entire post.

How did this happen, you ask? How is it that a woman whose focus for the past 20 years has been on studying and teaching language misspells that word? How does she not know the difference?

The quick answer is, “Because I didn’t.”

The longer answer, as usual, is more complicated. My error was to write stationAry rather than stationEry. I was not confusing the definition of the two words, but I wasn’t fully aware of the spelling differences. There was a vague tingling of my Spidey-sense as I was writing the post, but not enough to make me realize what I was doing. I must have learned the difference at some point in my life, but it clearly hadn’t stuck. Why would I make this kind of mistake?

First of all, the word stationAry is more common, at least in writing, than stationEry, and has been for a long time. Brigham Young University has a Corpus of Contemporary American English which I used to determine the current frequency of each word. There were 777 total instances of stationEry, while stationAry had twice as many, with a total of 1,559 examples. Interestingly enough, both words had almost the exact number of spoken utterances (80 and 79 respectively) which may suggest that we say both words at about the same rate, but we’re much more likely to write stationAry.

Then I turned to Google’s Ngram viewer that tracks written usage of words in comparison to each other over the past two hundred years. Here’s the result for stationAry (blue line) vs. stationEry (red line):

stationary vs. stationery

There it is: we are more used to seeing stationAry in print. And it’s true that I’m much more likely to talk about my love for stationEry than to write about it. When working on my post and calling up the word I wanted to use, it’s likely that my visual memory called up the wrong word simply because I had seen it so many more times. And word frequency definitely has an effect on vocabulary recall.

Oh memory, you fickle mistress!

Another interesting tidbit I learned about these two words is that they are actually from the same linguistic root, so it’s no coincidence that they differ only by one letter. According to Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, the Latin word stationarius gave rise to both of the modern variants. The short version is that stationEry supplies used to be notably stationAry, as opposed to mobile and sold by a peddler.

Quinon states: “Stationery, as a general term for the things sold, appeared in the eighteenth century. There was much confusion about spelling in the early days, since stationary as an adjective for things that don’t move about had been in the language for about a hundred years. But by the middle of the century a clear distinction had appeared, based on the logic that what a stationer sold had to be stuff called stationery.”

Still, the reasons for the initial error do not eliminate the burden of proofreading and editing. The distinction between the two spellings was buried so far in the recesses of my memory, though, that it didn’t even come up during the typical scrutiny that I give to my posts.

Indeed, I stood corrected several times in the comments.

Part of me was grateful for the information so I could correct the error. I’m also a big fan of irony, so part of me is highly amused that I focused an entire post on my love for stationery and then misspelled it 8 times (not, in fact, 10 times, as was claimed in this tweet.)

But to be frank, it was also a bit annoying, especially the comment of one who seemed particularly put out by my error. Yes, I made a silly error, but is it really so bad that the rest of the content needed to be ignored in order to express derision at the mistake? Is misspelling stationery as cringe-worthy as if I’d used right instead of write in a post about writing?

Does this look like the face of a woman who can’t take a joke?

Look, I can take my lumps and I don’t begrudge a little humor at my expense. I grew up with four older siblings, so I can take a ribbing as long as it remains good-natured. I also get why my misspelling is an especially silly error: if I claim to love stationery, shouldn’t I know how to spell it properly? But I wrote a lot of other words in that post, and I do believe they were spelled correctly in addition to expressing actual ideas.

I’m choosing to believe that the comments and brief Twitter exchanges about my error were in this good-natured spirit, because if they were in any way suggesting that my ignorance of one word’s spelling was indicative of a broader incompetence and mental defect…well, that would just piss me off.

Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive to the tone of the corrections. Maybe it’s just embarrassing (how could it not be?) Mostly, however, I believe it’s about maintaining a reasonable perspective. If the writer or the reader obsesses over a relatively minor error, no matter how central to the essay the word may be, we put all the emphasis on the tree when there’s a whole big forest out there as well.

I once read a placement exam that was written by someone with absolutely horrible spelling, which was ironic – or possibly appropriate and instructive – in light of the subject of the essay: an argument that a weak educational system was one of the worst problems facing this country today.

One of the other readers dismissed this essay as ‘a joke’ and wanted to put the student in developmental writing. Another reader thought it was borderline but could probably go into Eng 101. I was the third reader, the tie breaker. The spelling errors were distracting at first, but as I read, I realized that this boy was so insightful and passionate in his call for higher educational standards. His argument was clear, persuasive, and well-supported. I also noted that his mistakes were limited to spelling; his sentence structure was varied and sophisticated and there were no other mechanical issues.

After the first page, I stopped noticing the spelling errors and understood that this was a kid with a brain and he would languish in developmental writing. I knew I would rather have a room full of bad spellers but clear thinkers than a class filled with students who offer perfect spelling, punctuation, and grammar but who say absolutely nothing in their essays. Alas, both creatures are quite rare, so I’ll just keep on fantasizing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some proofreading to do.

14 thoughts on “Repentant linguist is repentant…to a point.

  1. I absolutely love the fact that you wrote a post about the difference between stationery and stationary. Way to own your typo and make it an interesting composition. While I applaud your research and time, I have no intentions of creating the same sort of posts when I overlook a typo or improper punctuation. Please don’t hate me for my laziness. (smile)

    • Thanks, Lenore! And it’s not laziness on your part, it’s sanity ;) I thought about letting it go, but then decided it was a good way to get myself back into the swing of things!

  2. I also felt that the comments in question were needlessly hostile (and not just because I felt targeted too).But you certainly started the new blog off with a bang! A very awespicious start (oh wait, wasn’t that supposed to be AUspicious??!).

  3. I loved this post. I completely agree that people sometimes get so wrapped up in the tiniest details. They are so eager to zero in on any kind of little mistake just so they can then feel better about themselves. It’s childish to me. “Ooh! Lookee there! You made a mistake! Ooh!!” We’ve all made mistakes in spelling or punctuation. I am constantly double checking my posts for mistakes. I do cringe if I see someone use ‘loose’ for ‘lose’ but really, I let it go even then because I realize that all of us are constantly learning. We’re not perfect. I don’t hold it against the person, especially if the point of their entire post is left behind over it.

    • Even when I notice errors in other people’s work (I can’t help it!), 9 times out of 10, I won’t mention them, and if I do, I certainly try to be more thoughtful.

      (And speaking of errors, a huge pile of grading is why I’m so late with my reply to you!)

      Thanks for the vote of support!

  4. Leo, I read your (as always) brilliant post at Dinosaur – after it had been corrected. I wouldn’t have noticed the error anyway, as I confessed in my comment there, but I too took exception (on your behalf) at the tone of some of the comments. Especially the readers that were so eager to point out the error after it had already been mentioned several times. I think the first thing I would do before typing a terse spelling correction is make sure it hadn’t already been said numerous times. But that’s just me.

    Love ya!

    • Y’know, that bugged me too. I usually keep my comments to myself if someone else has beaten me to the punch. I guess some like to kick a linguist when she’s down, though ;)

      Hope you’re doing well in your new place! I’ve been reading about your journey and thinking of you.

  5. When I wrote a newspaper article about Newark a decade ago, the editor from the Washington Post sent me a note that said, in essence, “This is a great story, except for one thing: Portuguese! Portuguese! Portuguese!” I had spelled it “Portugese” throughout. Never made that mistake again.

  6. Hi, I’m an ESL learner and I remember that I first learnt the word “stationery” from some vocabulary exercise, where it was pointed out that I shouldn’t confuse it with “stationary”. Now I hardly ever use any of these words but I can easily tell one from the other. I guess, your and my experiences show the difference between the learning of the 1st and the 2nd language quite well.

    • That’s a good point. Native speakers may pay less attention or have less of a tendency to check, especially when they have some confidence in their spelling skills. In a second language, I would be constantly checking and re-checking, or pulling up more explicit memories of learning the difference.

  7. Blasted e’s. Hrmph.

    I found you via Amazon after reading your review and the ensuing discussion regarding The Help. I thought I was living in Crazy Town until I read it. Spot-on dude. Many thanks for that.

    • You’re more than welcome. Most people look at me like I’ve got two heads when I tell them I “didn’t just loooooove” that book. Thanks for coming on over! :)

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