How Do You Spell Apathy?

cartoon report card with all A's

On a popular social media site I found a post from a good friend, describing her night out at a favorite restaurant. The first comment she received from someone said – and I’m reporting it exactly as I saw it – “Where you really their? We we’re their to!”

Yikes!

Curious, I clicked on the author of the comment. She struck me as a mature, vibrant woman, posing for her profile photo with a big smile and two adorable kids. Oh, and her occupation: Vice-president of a marketing firm.

This column is not a rant against poor spelling and grammar; it’s a call for us to confront the larger issue of apathy.

The word evolved from the Greek apatheia, which describes an absence of feeling. In our modern sense we use it to describe indifference.

That seems about right in this context. But it’s an indifference that we must address with our students.

Back in the day, correct spelling and proper grammar not only were encouraged, but expected. It was rare to find mistakes in a newspaper or magazine article, and correspondence – whether between individuals or within companies – was meticulously accurate. It was a matter of pride.

Today? Read your email. Read the online posts. Read the sign boards outside of businesses. Chances are that you’ll encounter error after error. Take another look at the example at the top; out of eight words, the vice-president botched five of them – five! – and we’re not talking about words like pneumonia or insatiable.

But few people care. We’re rapidly sliding down into an illiterate well, and we don’t seem too bothered by it. I used to chuckle when someone described another person as a “looser,” when they meant “loser.” Oh, the irony. Today, however, it seems that more people misspell the word than get it right. We have, sadly, become a nation of loosers.

The issue isn’t simply the mistakes. What concerns me is the lack of any sense of shame. Americans, to a large extent, are apathetic to our accelerating illiteracy. Pride is reserved for how we see ourselves in the mirror, not in how we present ourselves intellectually.

I make mistakes. I’m not always perfect grammatically, and I’ll sometimes misspell a word. For ages I could not grasp the second “m” in accommodate, just as I disrespected the second “r” in occurrence. The difference, however, was that I wanted to correctly spell the words.

Today there’s a stubborn insistence on misspelling, with little incentive to improve. When I’ve asked what that was about, I’ve heard answers such as “I’ve always spelled it like that,” or – this is the worst – “So? You know what I’m talking about.”

What you’re talking about is an apathetic attitude toward education and learning. Why bother, right? Who cares if it’s spelled correctly? What difference does it make?

C’mon, let’s watch Jersey Shore.

Even more troubling is the suggestion that you’re somehow a snob or an elitist if you even broach the subject. In America today the sin is not in committing a rash of spelling mistakes; no, the crime is in pointing them out or attempting to help. That makes you a snob.

Better to be the kindest illiterate nation in history.

I’ve tried to imagine our world in forty or fifty years. Today there’s still a good chance that a resume chock full of mistakes could eliminate you from consideration for a critical job. So what happens when the people responsible for hiring that person can’t spot the errors, or, even worse, are apathetic to them? Does that lead to a society that never corrects its course?

It’s time to instill a different kind of pride in our young people, one that involves more than just that image in the mirror. It’s time to bring back academic pride. Smirking over a dumbed-down lifestyle might seem cool at age fifteen, but by age thirty it borders on disturbing. At age forty and above it’s downright sad.

We are, unfortunately, often a lazy nation when it comes to intellectual accomplishment. It’s too easy to ignore the problem, and allow it to snowball until illiteracy is the norm. Restoring a sense of intellectual pride in succeeding generations must begin by first restoring it in ourselves.

Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.

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  • Mary Kathryn Johnson (@SayBumpandTweet) February 13, 2013, 1:55 pm

    As with all behaviors, change starts with a single choice – the choice to change. I pointed out to my 14 year old that he used “their” when he meant to use “there”, and his response was, “at least I spelled it right.” I said, “good job, now change it so you mean what you say.”

    When I text him, I spell things correctly, and expect the same in return. Whether or not he chooses to do the same when texting his friends is exactly that…his choice, but at least I know he can use correct spelling and grammar when the need arises. People usually rise to whatever expectation they are given. As parents or friends, that is the best we can do for each other.

    The person who communicates consistently in any form with incorrect spelling and grammar has immediately lost my respect, and I discount their message (or should I say “there message?”). 🙂

    Thanks for continuing to combat apathy!

    Reply
    • Amy LeForge February 14, 2013, 1:06 am

      Mary Kathryn, when I finally started texting I communicated as I do anywhere else: with complete sentences and proper grammar. One of my boys laughed at me a little, but I’ve noticed he complains about grammar on his Facebook wall every now and again. I struggle with reading messages with poor grammar and spelling too, but so far have managed to just let it go. 🙂

      I told Dom that I absolutely loved this article because wow, it’s so powerful. So far this is my favorite post from him.

      Reply