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To Spell Check or Not to Spell Check


Ken Bushnell

As the pace of the information age heats up there is a low level debate going on as to whether or not we should invest time spell checking and generally proofing our material before we show it to others. The two factions have viable arguments. On the one hand, we invest time developing ideas, projects, programs, and what have you, with the feeling it’s important to get the information out quickly rather than polish it and dote over it. 

On the other hand we have the purists, who may be right in that anything worth reading has been fully prepared and well crafted by its creators. Even though the non purists are fond of using the modifier ‘retentive’ to describe the purist’s intentions, a glaring example was set forth almost two hundred years ago when Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition of discovery looking for the northwest passage. History has recorded Clark, who was responsible for keeping the log books, to be a ‘notoriously’ bad speller. Actually the events that occurred may be familiar to all of us and might have gone something like this:

Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the Corps of Discovery are in St. Louis making last minute preparations for their trip before starting up the Missouri River. They’re inspecting one of the keelboats, or at least Lewis is. Clark is tying a fly (fishing). Lewis reaches into a duffel bag. “What’s this?” He inquires of Clark while holding up a heavy-looking book.

“That’s my dictionary,” Clark responds.

Lewis is adamant. “I thought we agreed we wouldn’t bring anything extra.”

“That’s right.” Clark was a bit of an antagonist.

“Well then, what’s,” he lifts it up and down a couple of times estimating the weight, “a four pound book doing in this duffel bag?”

“I couldn’t find a three pounder?” Clark turns away as he says it, adding a note of sarcasm.

“I realize I asked you to be my co-captain on this venture, but you know the President appointed me, so I have to remind you of my orders: no extras, only the essentials.” Lewis starts to throw the dictionary in the water.

“Wait a minute.” Clark stands up and grabs it. They’re both holding onto it. “That’s a two dollar book.”

Lewis relinquishes his grasp.

“Two dollars! Two dollars?" Lewis starts to turn red. “You spent two dollars on a book just before you were going on a journey?  And a dangerous one at that!”

“I didn’t buy it. You did. Or at least the Corps bought it.”

Lewis is now ready to explode. Fuming mad, he advances and grabs the book from Clark’s hand. “You, you...” He could barely get the words out. “You are going to return this.”

“Why?” Clark, always the cool-headed one, was egging him on.

“Look Will. Up to now we’ve been pretty good friends. But I get the feeling you’ve been dogging me all the way. First there was that fiasco with the folding boat. [Lewis had invented a folding canoe, giving instructions to have it manufactured under Clark’s guidance] I told you what I wanted, but no, you had to get in there with the black smith and make a few changes. Did I care? Did I complain? No! But we got our boat, and only two months late because of your expertise.” He added as much mockery as he could to the last word. 

“And what about the beads? I told you blue beads. [The Indians preferred trading blue beads because they had no natural dye for that color.] Lots of them. But did you listen. No, you got a good deal on red. Okay, okay, but if you keep giving me trouble, friendship or no friendship, I’m going to have to exercise my authority. Is that clear?”

“Authority. What authority?” Clark was getting wound up. “Ever since we started this mission you’ve been acting like you’re King George, or something. You give me a list, and not a very good list, to go to Hubbell and get supplies. It says beads, I got you some beads. It didn’t say anything about blue beads.”

“Okay, okay. So I didn’t write it down. Do I have to write everything down? I told you blue beads because that’s what Jefferson said the natives would like. Do you remember?” Lewis was trying to mend the rift, now.

Clark knew the tone. “Yea. I guess. Blue beads, sure. But I forgot, in the heat of moment, and there was a good deal on red beads, from China no less, I just thought, what the heck? Red, blue, white, what’s the difference?”

“It doesn’t matter now, but this dictionary, I’m going to send it back and you can have it when we get there.”

“No way. No way, Meri. We need that book. You don’t want us to look like idiots who can’t spell do you? Your name’s going to be on this thing too, you know. Jefferson asked you to keep a record of everything. I can draw maps so you put me in charge of the log books and I want to take this dictionary. You don’t think I’m going to ask you every time I think something’s spelled wrong, do you? What about Colter? [A fellow discoverer] Do you think he can spell? I don’t even know if he can read! Look, I don’t know about you, but I have to look things up. I’m not much of a reader. Besides, you know I never went to any of those fancy schools.”

“York’s a pretty good speller, isn’t he?” Lewis was trying another tactic.

“My manservant?” Clark was talking about a family slave, who he’d grown up with and now was joining him on the expedition. “Oh yea, sure. But I try not to let him know he’s better than me, that way. I got to keep discipline and all, you know.”

“Look Will. How’s this? You don’t want to portage this thing around the next set of falls we encounter, or carry it up some big mountain, do you? That’s when you’re going to be glad that we aren’t carrying extra weight. So how about if I send it back with Hopkins and when we get back you can go over the journals and check the spelling then, in the comfort of your own home?”

“Well, I guess. That makes sense. But I thought we were going to hire natives to help us carry stuff around the falls.” Clark was hesitant.

“I’ll help you check the spelling when we get back.” Lewis threw in the deal-maker.

“Okay. You’re right. We can do this thing together.” Clark gets up, puts his arm around Lewis, pulls him in for a hug and pokes him in the ribs, kiddingly. “Pals?”

“Oh all right, pals,” Lewis responds.

Clark reaches into the same duffel bag and pulls out another book. “Oh by the way. It was a two volume set.”

All’s well that ends well except we know the road to bean town is paved with good intentions. When Clark got back, Jefferson, who was maybe the most prolific reader of his time, was anxious to read about the journey, so he asked for the journals directly. He wanted to read every word.

We can only imagine what happened when Clark reported to the President. “Here are the journals,” Clark enters the President's office. He is hurried because he’s a little late and is juggling a stack of journals.

“Marvelous. Marvelous. Did you have a nice trip?” Jefferson waited for his response. “Just kidding. Just kidding. Captain Lewis a sent message back from Wood River when you guys landed.”

“Yes sir. I just wanted to point out we lost some of the journals coming down the Missouri. Also I haven’t had a chance to go over them and check the spelling and all. It was no party, you know, trying to write this stuff down in the mud, rain, with mosquitoes, wild animals, and Indians attacking. There were times when I was lucky to get anything down on paper at all.”

“I understand.” Jefferson starts paging through the journals. “I thought you were going to tell me the dog ate it..” Again the President waits for his response.

“As soon as I can I will try to reconstruct the ones we lost.”

“Yes, yes. That’ll be good. And don’t forget the speech you and Meriwether are going to give next week when the House gets together. Oh, and that Indian affairs position, I need an answer by next week as well.” Jefferson keeps heaping the work on. “You don’t mind if I have my scribe make copies of some of these passages, do you? There are some people I’d like to show them to.”

“No, no. Copies? Please.” Clark is thinking about something else. “Oh the speech. I forgot about the speech. Thanks for reminding me. I better start writing it. I’ve also got to take care of some things for the farm. Can you give me a couple of more days on that appointment? I don’t know where I’m going to find the time.”

And so we leave Clark trying to find time as his schedule gets busier and busier with his newfound celebrity. He never did get the time to correct his original journals. History books later went on to recall Clark to be a ‘notoriously’ bad speller. 

The question is: would you rather have had a perfectly manicured document or a detailed record of one of the greatest sagas of the American West? We now have unique insight. In this modern information age we know you can get too busy. So why bother to spell check?

History is bound to repeat itself.

Editor's note: This article is the author's opinion.  Please do use spell check when writing, but don't depend on it as an absolute; it is not completely dependable.  That's why God made Editors.  Alice

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