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This is the latest version of my evil spelling test, enlarged and with extra evil added. As noted on a previous occasion, it’s built around words that trip up good spellers, arranged in an order that’s intended to increase their difficulty.
The origin of the test was pragmatic rather than theoretical. I made it out of words and word combinations which I’d seen misspelled by good spellers. I’ve gradually come to appreciate the role played in it by over-thinking and second-guessing. It’s easier to remember how to spell battalion when it’s on its own (two Ts, one L) than when it follows artillery (one T, two Ls), and is followed by vermilion (one L, though it’s pronounced like million) and guerrilla. Millennium and millenarian are a wicked pair all by themselves. They’re followed by miscellaneous because (a.) it’s often misspelled, and (b.) it’ll trip up test-takers who figure that if the last three words had double Ls, this one has to be single.
I first imagined it as an oral spelling test, where you hear the word and spell it out loud, the way you do in a spelling bee. (Thus the phonetic spelling of ˈkæʊnslər: it’s there for the momentary free-falling panic of hearing that set of sounds and not knowing which of its four alternate spellings (two if you define the word) is called for.) I’ve seen the spelling bee/oral test format criticized for its artificiality, but it has a strength others lack: it tests your real knowledge of how a word is spelled. Feeling that a word “looks wrong” is not the same thing as knowing how to correctly spell it.
Digression: old copy editors and proofreaders know that a typo you missed will often be right next to a typo you corrected. My theory is that closely adjacent typos mess up our “something is wrong at this location” radar. In the next pass, the first typo will be corrected, so the second typo will become visible. Of course, if the next pass is the printed book, that’s not going to help.
The proofreader’s sense that “something is wrong at this location” is a genuinely weird phenomenon. People who have a serious case of it will “feel” a typo go past when they’re riffling through pages too fast to be reading them. They’ll gradually sense the presence of a typo in their peripheral vision — for example, in the small print on a poster located eight feet up on the opposite wall, when they’re concentrating on reading something right in front of them.* When they’re proofreading, sometimes the typos on the next page will “light up” as soon as they turn the page. They’ll still methodically read that page against the setting copy, but there’s a good chance that the typos they saw in that first moment will be the only ones on the page.
If you can get enough of these people together for a conversation, it’s fascinating to hear them discuss the experience. For some, the misspelled text flashes the first time they see it, or is a different color, or floats slightly above the surface of the page, or vibrates. For me, there’s a bump at that spot, about the size of a caraway or fennel seed lying on the desktop underneath the paper. My mind can feel it, though my fingers know it’s not there.
Back to the test. Since spelling bees are impractical, I suppose it could be implemented as an online test that speaks the word out loud, and gives you the options of seeing a brief definition of it, seeing its phonetic spelling, and hearing it spoken again. You then type in its standard English spelling. It would be interesting to see whether error rates changed if you did or didn’t display the words already typed.
For the benefit of the copyright-impaired, this test is copyright © 2012 by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, all rights reserved; but if someone wants to implement it as an online test, talk to me.