The ABCs are so much more than a lighthearted tune for kindergarten students: Learning to spell is one of the most important building blocks when it comes to overall literacy. In the modern age, however, we are so reliant on the spell-checker's doting, forgiving nature and rapid-fire text messages that the art of spelling often goes by the wayside in day-to-day life.
We wanted to take a look at Americans' general spelling skills, as well as which industries are populated by the best spellers, whether typos are tolerated in the average workplace, and how intelligence plays a role in the dating game. We surveyed and administered a spelling test to more than 1,000 Americans so that we could get the answers once and "fro all."
Super Spellers Everywhere
Here's the thing about averages – there can only be 50 percent of the population on either side of the equation. However, that was hardly the case when we asked our respondents whether they thought their knowledge was above or below average for a variety of subjects.
When it came to reading, spelling, and grammar, the majority of both men and women felt they had above-average abilities: 86 percent thought they were reading comprehension virtuosos, 78 percent fancied themselves super spellers, and another 74.7 percent felt they were grammar gurus. In every other category, from chemistry to history, men reported higher confidence levels than women.
The truth about American literacy isn't as rosy as our respondents make it seem, though. More than 30 million adults have reading, writing, and math skills that hover around a third-grade level, which is alarming given these skills' tendencies to affect future generations: Children of illiterate parents are much more likely to get poor grades and experience behavioral issues.
Looking Back on K-12
Teachers are some of the most overworked and underappreciated members of the workforce, which is disheartening because they are also more integral to students' success than class size, available technology, and individualized attention. Having a great teacher at the front of a classroom can change everything– so how many respondents had the pleasure of enjoying this educational experience?
The majority (40.8 percent) said they had between one and two outstanding instructors throughout their education. Another 35.4 percent fondly remembered having three to four great teachers. And while only 6.9 percent said they had zero exceptional teachers while they were in school, even fewer reported having seven or more.
American public schools don't exactly have the best reputation, and while more private school-educated respondents said they were satisfied with their schooling (84 percent), nearly three-quarters of publicly educated people said the same. Between these two groups, there was almost no difference in the number of great teachers respondents said they'd had.
Finally, when it came to self-assessing their abilities, a large majority of women said their best subject in high school was English. Math and history were a distant second and third. Men's responses were much more varied, with English, math, and history essentially neck and neck in comparison.
Trouble With Typos
So you've sent off an email that contains a spelling mistake. Typos happen, and you will get through this – but maybe don't let it happen again. Sixty-five percent of our respondents said this type of error was unacceptable in their industry, but people in logistics, advertising, and government were particularly intolerant of typos.
On the flip side, 18.6 percent of the population said spelling mistakes were quite all right, even though just 2.7 percent ranked them as "completely acceptable." As against errors as our respondents were, though, just 8.2 percent said they would be in serious hot water with their boss if they made a typo, compared to 40.8 percent who assumed their boss would only be "slightly annoyed." Another 24.5 percent were convinced their higher-ups wouldn't care at all.
One of the worst times for a spelling slip-up in the workplace is, of course, before you even enter the workplace: Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they wouldn't hire someone with a typo on their resume. That being said, things do get better as you earn more clout, and the feeling of shock and horror that accompanies any email sent off with an error eventually melts away with seniority. Phew.
For the Love of Literacy
Partnering up with an intellectual equal isn't as simple as finding someone with a college diploma or a similar love of poetry – it requires you to check a number of important boxes if you want to facilitate a healthy, lasting relationship. At least, that would be the case if you wanted to date someone based on their intellect.
The bulk of our respondents did, indeed, look for brains over beauty, with one very important exception: While the grand majority of women would rather date and marry a partner who is smart as opposed to attractive, men had other plans. The number of male respondents who would rather date someone for their looks versus their intelligence was nearly split down the middle (43.6 percent versus 56.4 percent, respectively), but when it came to marriage, the latter number shot up to 78.1 percent.
Attraction can take on many forms, and according to our respondents, being uneducated is not one of them. Spelling and grammar mistakes were also high up on the blacklist, as well as a lack of basic math skills. Finally, while half of respondents from each gender reported they felt just as smart as their partner, men were twice as likely as women to feel smarter than their partner. In that same vein, many more women (32.2 percent) than men (19.5 percent) felt inferior to their other half in the brains department.
Get Your Spelling Score
Most of our respondents thought they were above average at spelling. How do you stack up? We gave survey respondents a basic spelling and grammar quiz. Before we show you how Americans did, take our quiz to find out if you're a stellar speller or typo-prone.
Putting Americans to the Test
Our respondents were given a spelling test containing a number of commonly botched words to determine their spelling proficiency. On average, they achieved a decent grade: 75 percent or the equivalent of a C in a traditional high school English class. Honorable mentions go to respondents in advertising, entertainment, telecommunications, finance, and nonprofit who earned the highest score overall.
There was barely any variation in spelling skills between the four generations (although millennials and Gen Xers were slightly more apt than baby boomers and Gen Zers). However, the test score gap was even more paper-thin between public and private school graduates: 75.5 percent for private, and 75 percent for public – in other words, totally average in both cases.
While private schools are often lauded for sending better-equipped students off into the world, more and more studies are revealing there may not actually be a marked difference between the two – instead, kids' home lives are thought to be a much stronger determinant than private versus public school.
In a moment of cruel irony, more than 1 in 5 people misspelled the word "misspell." The word that led to the most problems overall was "accommodate," which stumped nearly half of our test takers, followed by "hypocrisy," which had a modest 64.4 percent success rate. Meanwhile, the majority of respondents could spell "apparently" and "receive" correctly.
Aside from the common spelling snags revealed by our in-house test, many other words frequently stump less-savvy spellers. How many of these are you guilty of misspelling?
Were you born between 1981 and 1996? If so, do you know that you belong to the millennial generation? However, no matter which generation you belong to, do you know how to spell one of the most common buzzwords in our modern vocabulary?
Overall, 57.5 percent of our respondents were able to correctly spell the word "millennial," with single-N "millenial" coming in as the only significant misspelling. Unsurprisingly, members of this generation got the spelling correct most frequently, followed by Gen Xers.
Which Witch Is Which?
When it came to pesky homonyms (not to be confused with homophones and homographs), respondents tackled some of the words with ease, while a select few were much more divisive. Here's how they did.
Don't Ignore the Signs
The majority of our respondents self-identified as above average in spelling, grammar, and reading comprehension, but the reality was much more nuanced. After taking a spelling test, the average grade was a 75 percent, and certain commonly misspelled words were still able to take down a good chunk of our surveyed population (we're looking at you, "accommodate").
One of the most interesting takeaways was that there was essentially no difference in aptitudes between people who went to private school and people who were publicly educated, although more privately educated respondents felt they had received a high-quality education.
In the workplace, the majority of people said typos were viewed as unacceptable. It's important for your company to present itself as professional and conscientious – so you can only imagine what an unsightly or outdated sign could do to your business's credibility. Signs.com can provide solutions for all your display needs, from aluminum, acrylic, and banner signs to window decals and advertising flags. Don't let your brand down: Communicate your perfectly spelled thoughts to the world with an elegant, stylish design.
Methodology and Limitations
How we created this study
To create the data shown above, we created an interactive survey on SurveyMonkey and had 1,000 Americans from the academic community Prolific.ac take it. The survey contained general questions about education, as well as a spelling and grammar test.
Of course, we couldn't show the question "How do you spell millennials?" so we created an audio recording and asked participants to listen to the recording and type in what they heard. Other questions asked, "Which of the following is the correct spelling?" and respondents had multiple-choice answers to select, similar to the quiz shown above.
Like any survey, respondents may have been biased in some answers by recent events, their current mood, or a number of biases common to every survey. We gave attention checks during the survey to make sure people were paying attention and made every effort we could to minimize respondent bias.
How we controlled for cheating
On the quiz portion of the test, we were worried about spelling and grammar apps and plugins, so we asked people to disable them before taking them. The only thing we asked people to type in as a part of the quiz was the word "millennial," which, thankfully, was not in Google Chrome's or SurveyMonkey's word corpus and is always shown with a red squiggly line underneath it as if it were misspelled. Other answers were multiple choices and were seen as plain text, and thus were not checked by a browser's spell-checker.
At the end of the survey, we asked the question, "During the course of this survey, did you change any answers based on spell-check, squiggly red lines under a word you were typing, or have any reason you were not totally honest about the way you think things are spelled? You will not be penalized for this answer." The more than 100 people who admitted to it were excluded from any quiz results, which dropped the correct percentages significantly.
That said, we are not totally naive and understand there are more creative ways to cheat. Some may have explored those ways or may not have been honest on the final question, even if they were assured they would not be penalized for their answers. We can only hold people at their word and stress that this survey and study are meant for entertainment, and we made our best good-faith effort to get the most accurate results possible. If someone wants to, they can try to proctor an actual examination or do a larger study with cameras and other cheating traps, although as SAT news has shown us recently, people may always find ways to cheat.
Of the 1,000 people who took it, generation breakdowns were as follows: 101 baby boomers, 168 Gen Xers, 619 millennials, 108 Gen Zers, and four selected other options. 502 men and 486 women took the survey, with the rest giving other answers or preferring not to state. All industries we considered in any results shown had at least 25 respondents who said they were currently employed in that industry. Respondents' ages ranged from 18 to 75 with an average age of 33 and a standard deviation of 12.28. No personally identifiable information was asked or collected during the survey.
Fair Use Statement
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