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February 25th, 2009

Getting quotes exactly right / spelling woes

by Barbara Wallraff

John Bunn, of Windsor, Ontario, writes: “The adage ‘From those to whom much is given, much is expected’ is, I think, proper. However, I don’t know if that is the way it is most frequently expressed. If an adage or quotation is not correct, should it be used anyway?”

Dear John: Microsoft’s Bill Gates said, “From those to whom much is given ...” in a 2007 commencement speech at Harvard. He was quoting his mother. And she was paraphrasing the Bible: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” -- Luke 12:48.

That’s the King James version, at any rate. There’s nothing wrong with expressing an idea in the words that come naturally to you. But if you’re going to attribute a quotation -- that is, specify where it’s from -- you are supposed to get it exactly right. Admittedly, “unto whomsoever” doesn’t trip lightly off the contemporary tongue. Quoting the Bible is more elegant than quoting Bill Gates, though, so I clicked through 19 other, mostly more recent translations of Luke 12:48 on BibleGateway.com for you. None of them is exactly the same as the Bill Gates version -- but I won’t tell if you won’t. Let’s call it a biblical quotation and leave it at that.

Jeffrey Stringer, of Niskayuna, N.Y., writes: “I was distressed by your recent column about spelling. I have suffered greatly for my whole life in not being able to spell. I am to turn 59 this April, and I assure you that if I could spell well and with confidence, I would have learned to do so by now. I have been mocked and ridiculed by teachers, family and employers because of it. You might want to think of including a disclaimer for those dyslexics who find it profoundly hard to fashion the perfection you so easily achieve.”

Dear Jeffrey: I know very well that a person doesn’t have to be good at spelling to be competent and intelligent and otherwise admirable. I learned that from a guy named Ken Gray, who was the art director at the graphic-design studio that gave me one of my first jobs. When Ken was hand-drawing ad prototypes for our biggest client, Eastern Mountain Sports, he needed to be carefully watched. As a visually oriented person, he disliked the way “E” and “A” looked next to each other. The company’s logo was in all caps, and Ken could spend hours lovingly rendering “ESTERN MOUNTAIN SPORTS.”

But Jeffrey? I’m not making fun of Ken, and I wasn’t making fun of you. My point was that spelling matters, for very practical reasons. Obviously, you and I are in agreement about that. It’s easier now than ever before to spell things right. Spell-checking helps. Dictionaries are available online. And you can always ask a good speller to look over anything important before it’s final. Back in the day when I worked with Ken, if he misspelled the logo, he had to redraw the whole ad. Now, with computer graphics, he’d only have to type in the missing letter and it would be good to go.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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