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Surviving the Storms Over Awful Spelling

I AM one of those people who cannot spell and often cannot find enough of a word in the dictionary to discover how to spell it. I've improved some, but I still see words misspelled in my mind.

Oh, yes, I say to myself '' 'til'' (instead of ''till'') and write it down. ''Realy'' looked right. The rules did help. But there aren't that many of them. And how a word sounds helps not at all. So I struggled. I memorized. But by the time I was about to be awarded my PhD (in English literature, of course), my spelling was still so bad that the English department decided it had to do something.

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The first requirement was that I learn how to spell every entry on a list of the 650 most commonly misspelled words. That was bad enough, but the second task was impossible: learn to spell all the titles and authors in the 67-page index to Albert C. Baugh's ''A Literary History of England.'' Not only Shelley, you understand, but ''Hakluyt'' and ''Tieck''; not only ''Tristan and Iseult'' but ''Thyestes'' and the ''Mabinogion.'' I pleaded that these last were in foreign languages; that I would have no occasion to refer to most of the works; and finally that the requirement was simply unfair. There were plenty of other graduate students who spelled as poorly as I did.

The professors were moved by my arguments. The index was edited. (''Lalla Rookh'' was left in; William Maginn was left out). And the requirement was broadened to include the other graduate students in English.

It did no good to point out that many authors (F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example) were notoriously bad spellers and that Shakespeare spelled his own name five different ways. The professors were adamant. For purposes of writing on the blackboard alone, they argued, an English professor should be able to spell. All right, they had a point. But how would we ever do it? The department would run a special spelling class just for us.

Spelling classes consisted of going over the rules, which were sometimes confusingly permissive (the possessive of Keats being either ''Keats's'' or ''Keats' ''); drilling on tricky items such as the various forms the sound ''there'' might take (''their,'' ''they're,'' and ''there're''); and engaging in spelling bees using words from the list as well as from Baugh's index.

Eight of us met once a week. There would be 10 words. The professor would dictate, we would write them down, he would spell them correctly, and we would grade our own papers. Passing was 70.

''Charlie?'' our spelling coach would say, starting at his left.


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''Only 50.'' And so it went. We permitted ourselves occasional smiles.

Finally, the professor would get to Wayne, who almost always scored in the bottom third. On one particular day, his response passed into legend: ''Just a little bit wrong in each one, Mr. Dimble.''

Eventually, with the help of tutors and pockets full of slowly discarded spelling cards (''proceed'' was among the last to go), I passed the final spelling test and received my PhD.

But of course I still couldn't really spell, and once the pressure was off, recidivism set in. It wasn't helped by reading sentences such as the following from a freshman student's book review: ''The Scarlet Letter was full of horro, subblty, and chuck.''

I was out in the real world -- grading papers, writing on the blackboard, and responding to classroom questions. So what did I do to avoid embarrassment and possible termination of employment? I kept my spelling aids handy. I developed illegible handwriting. And, just to play it safe, I always had students write my impromptu test questions on the blackboard.

Solving one problem created others, however. Invariably, I had to read aloud to my students the illegible comments I'd written on their papers. Often I had trouble deciphering them myself. In the case of even more important written communications, such as making out checks, I was forced to print, something my hand did now only with the greatest of reluctance.

I typed personal letters and persuaded my wife to proofread. It was at Christmastime, however, that I suffered my greatest embarrassment. Carefully, I would rubber stamp our address onto each envelope. For the first few cards, I painfully printed my messages of good cheer. But then I became more relaxed, and by the time I started to address the envelopes, my penmanship had deteriorated. Each year a third of my Christmas cards were marked ''return to sender.''

There was one small benefit, however. Friends we hadn't seen in ages would call up. ''You went to Istambul last summer?'' After disabusing them of that, we would go on to have an extended chat about other things.