It was his first year at college and the Freshman was ready for the first English
class of his university career. In those days and in that college, it was still expected that
the men wore coats and ties, and the Freshman did his best to follow suite. When the
first day of English 103 rolled around, the Freshman sat on the edge of his seat and
The professor began with an anecdote about a recent applicant for the position of
assistant professor. This particular applicant, the professor said, had unfortunately
misspelled a word in his application letter, earning for his application an immediate trip
into the rubbish bin. Not two days later, the applicant submitted another letter
apologizing for the misspelling but only managed to compound the embarrassment by
misspelling yet another word.
Now, it should be noted here that the Freshman lived in a world without spellcheck.
This was before the complete infiltration of academia with the digital production
of text, so people still had to remember how to spell words rather than simply know
which word their computer should insert in place of their 'text-speech' abbreviations. An
aspiring young English professor's first test of competency was the cover letter for his or
her application, and this nameless wretch had failed -- twice.
The professor having finished his anecdote began to describe the first
assignment of the semester: a short essay intended to illustrate each student's ability to
write. He detailed his expectations for grammar, syntax, punctuation and format and
ended with a twist. Instead of grading the students as he normally would, he would
grade each paper as he thought they ought to be graded but would not actually enter
the grade into the official books for the semester. This meant the he had free reign to be
as harsh as he wanted, but at the same time the students would not suffer any real
damage to their academic career. Thus far all seemed well.
The Freshman then went off to write. He decided to write about his favourite
Shakespearean play, The Tempest, and explain why he thought it was so good. The
Freshman's confidence was absolute after years of high marks in an unbroken string of
advanced English classes.
Imagine his horror then, when on receiving his marked paper he saw a large
"-10" written on it. This was not the number of points lost, but the total grade for the
paper. 50 points had been deducted for errors of punctuation and form (the misuse of
page-numbers being one of the more grievous, but there was only one misspelling that
had merited the loss of an enormous 60 points: the final 'e' had been missing from
Shakespeare's name throughout the paper.
Now, if any thoughtful person should debate whether our culture is changing,
they should recall this story. There was a time when spelling and grammar had to be
internalized and recalled instinctively in order to succeed in academia. Things are much
easier now in that regard, but as the tools change so does the culture that surrounds
them. We may live in a very different intellectual landscape, but Shakespeare will never
lose his final 'e.'