A Portrait of the Plumber as a Poor Speller; or, Wrong Word

When my father first asked me if I wanted to follow him into the plumbing trade, I’d already been helping him on jobs for several years. I knew the names of the tools, could boil lead and poor it into the rope packed pipe joints, run the threading machine, drill holes, dig ditches with the right fall.

But, no, I thought I’d go to school, I told him, and I knew he was disappointed. He could read blueprints, but he put no stock in books. I made my decision to stay in school because I did like books and reading and writers and the whole idea of becoming a writer, as out of focus as that picture might have been, but had I made the decision based on my ability to spell, I might have listened to my dad and become a plumber. Perhaps it’s not too late.

My friend Dan (we were first year teachers at the same school in Venice a long time ago), who just recently started blogging, over at itkindofgotawayfromyou, and reading this blog, surprised me with an email this morning, first wishing us a happy Easter, then pointing out a spelling error in my last post. I couldn’t dismiss the error as a typo. I’d made it three times in the same post. Nor could I blame it on spell-check. It was one of those words that fools spell-check, as it had fooled me. This isn’t the first time Dan has had to help pick me up after a misspelling fall. During that first year of teaching, I had asked Dan to read something I had written. He did, and when he gave it back, he said I’d typed “your” where I wanted “you’re,” though an error like that often might be a typo; still, the proofreading eye needs to spot the error, and not see what it expects to see. Some words need to be unpacked before we hang them to dry on the outside clothesline.

We all have a particular picture of ourselves, but seldom, perhaps, the same picture others have of us. I’ve always pictured Dan as a good speller, and it’s nice to know he hasn’t lost his eye for orthography, though I’m not sure spelling is a question of the eye. But the picture that portrays English majors by definition as good spellers is myth. And reading Dan’s email, I reminded myself, for some consolation, that there’s credible evidence showing some of our best writers were poor spellers. Standard examples include F. Scott Fitzgerald, who could never remember how to spell his friend and Nobel Prize winning writer Hemingway’s name (one m or two?), while Hemingway wasn’t a much better speller, and Faulkner was also a poor speller. Joyce, on the other hand, a good speller, enjoyed creating new words and puns by deliberately misspelling words. Theories of why some can spell and others can’t suggest the brain’s to blame.

It wasn’t long ago my friend Judy invited me to join a spelling bee with her. What treachery was this, I wondered. I knew she was an orthographic genius, and just wanted me along as a foil character. Still, I’m not really such a poor speller, probably just average, is all. I usually get it right, but sometimes lack confidence, and look it up, but find I was right all along. So I went with Judy to the spelling bee, thinking I might get lucky with a few relatively easy ones. No luck. I misspelled on my third word, while Judy won the bee.

My father could not have cared less if I was a good or a poor speller, if I one spelling bees are lost them. He was, on the other hand, somewhat conserned that I became a poor plumber.

Coda: Readers noticing some spelling errors in that last paragraph might be interested in Joseph Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error.” It’s not about finding spelling errors, but it is about why some of us see writing errors others don’t, and why others are inclined to see errors we don’t. It’s about writing; spelling is about something else. Moreover, one might argue there’s only one misspelled word in my penultimate paragraph, the other two mistakes being simply wrong words, which, as it turns out, is the error Dan pointed out in my last post, a wrong word in the context, not a misspelled one.


E. B. White and the plumber


  1. anxietyax says:

    Grate post !Thankx.

    1. Joe Linker says:

      “Great Leroy!” Dad used to say. Have no idea where he got that.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Your father was right to worry about your plumbing and not your spelling. There is more grace in being a poor speller than a poor plumber. I think that’s why many states make you license yourself as a plumber, because if you make a mistake you could flood a house or back up a septic. If you’ve got “a leak” in your spelling, well it hurts a bit but it’s a lot easier to clean up. :)

    1. Joe Linker says:

      Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, Jeremy, and I think you probably know the rest, how way leads to way, and you don’t get back to that divergence. Many’s the time I’ve wondered about that plumber’s offer.

  3. dan hen says:

    Joe ,
    You may or may knot no that the principle , who we both werked for , Terry , had absolutely beautifull handwritting , butt couldn’t spell evan simple words creckly . His secretery had to proofreed everything he rote . Your write , yours wasn’t a spelling errar , but a misused word . Thanks fore the mencion .

    1. Joe Linker says:

      “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake).
      I did not know Terry couldn’t spell. I’m shocked to learn that. I hope yr not otherwise suggesting he and I had anything in common?

      1. dan hen says:

        ……….as the tenor in Joyce’s story The Dead said coyly : ” Not at’ll .”

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