On Limited Literacy

Is it wrong to be prejudiced against people who don’t even try to be literate?

I mentioned in my blog that I sometimes allow rated helicopter pilots to fly my aircraft on ferry flights for my flight cost. This is a substantial savings over what they’d pay to rent an aircraft to build time. In addition, they get the chance to fly a long cross-country flight (usually around 10 hours over two days) with an experienced pilot.

I get e-mails from people who are interested in this opportunity. The most recent arrived yesterday:

Yes sir i was intrested in biulding some time i am a commercial rated pilot with 250hr most in a robinson 22 i really need this chance to fly thank you for your time.

Although he managed to capitalize the first letter of the first word and put a period after the last word everything in between is a mess. Spelling? Punctuation? Is this what our schools are churning out?

Keep in mind that he sent me this message using the contact form on my Web site. A Web site that displays my name in the browser’s address bar when viewed. A web site that includes my name, bio, and other information in all kinds of places. Yet he addressed me as “sir.” I figured he’d somehow missed that I was a woman.

Still, the whole message put me in a foul mood. My response got to the point:

Do you have an R44 endorsement?


Without an R44 endorsement and 10 hours of flight time in R44s, you cannot fly an R44 with a passenger (even me) aboard. No exceptions.

Note that I included my name, just in case he really did miss it the first time.

His reply:

no sir im afraid i do not have it i would be willing to get one if you could let me know what it would take to get one thanks for your time

He didn’t even bother trying to get capitalization or punctuation right this time. Perhaps his shift key broke.

And I wasn’t about to let him get away with “sir” again. I replied:

First of all, I’m not a “sir.” Maria is a woman’s name. You sent an e-mail message to the woman who owns and operates the company and flies the aircraft.

If you don’t have an R44 endorsement, you cannot fly the aircraft. I’m sorry. If you want to get an R44 endorsement, talk to a flight school that operates R44s.


I’m bugged by this exchange. I’m bugged that someone bordering on illiterate — or too damn lazy to even try to get his spelling, punctuation, or grammar right — has the nerve to ask if he can fly my aircraft. There’s no way in hell I’d let anyone who communicates like that at the controls.

Being a commercial pilot is more than just taking flight lessons and getting the appropriate ratings. If this guy can’t write, how do I know he can read? That he understands the training materials he was given? That he took the time to read the pilot operating manual?

You might argue that he must have because he passed a written and oral test — two of each, in fact — to get as far as he did. But how do I know the quality of his CFI or pilot examiner? Or in the case of sheer laziness, if he’s too lazy to create two short e-mail messages written in proper grammar, why should I do him any favors at all? Frankly, I think even responding to him was going beyond the call of duty here.

Am I wrong to believe that written communication should be created with some semblance to proper grammar? Am I wrong to thumb my nose at people who fail to meet even the lowest tests of their ability to communicate in writing by composing two or three complete sentences?

Is this what our schools are churning out?

7 thoughts on “On Limited Literacy

  1. Hi, Maria. I really enjoy your blog, especially the interesting links.

    I’m also annoyed by illiteracy, and when I was “Internet dating” I’d dimiss any guy who couldn’t spell or write decently. Then I met an obviously smart person in my parenting group who couldn’t spell and my outlook changed. Language and spelling ability are aspects of brain function that don’t neccessarily indicate intelligence or lack of. My husband can not spell or punctuate very well. He has a 148 IQ and graduated magna cum laude with a Masters in technology. He literally can not picture words in his head, so spelling and writing are tough, but he can read and retain what he reads. He’s a science teacher. So that guy could be a good pilot and he could be very intelligent. But I totally understand the irritation, because even though I know better than to make assumptions, those e-mails were painful to read.

    • Michele: You’re right, of course. My husband’s also a pretty smart guy who can’t spell and isn’t very good at grammar. But at least he tries. He uses proper capitalization, tries hard to get punctuation right, and checks his writing with a spelling checker. (It’s very funny sometimes when he uses the right spelling of the wrong word!)

      I think this particular person was either a very poor writer, thought text messaging techniques were acceptable for semi-formal communication with a stranger (they’re not), OR didn’t care that he sounded like an idiot to anyone who read what he’d written.

      As a writer, I’m probably more sensitive to this than most people. While I don’t expect perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation in every e-mail message I get (or send, for that matter), the message shouldn’t scream out about the complete failure to get it even close.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll think of my husband (and yours) the next time a message like this crosses my inbox.

  2. Well, I hope to break the chain of men who are unable to spell or write with good grammar; however I will undoubtedly let myself down at some point!

    I like to think I am a reasonable writer. I was fortunate to have a very good education at a grammar school (selective state education in the UK); in fact it was the same school which Shakespeare himself attended. Because of this I too get annoyed easily by this. I’m quite forgiving of those who can’t write well though, having had a business partner who was genuinely dyslexic. My biggest bug bear in life is THERE, THEIR and THEY’RE.

    That said, we all make small mistakes from time to time and bad / popular parlance creeps in. Today I would have mistakenly put its in 3 places on a blog entry when I meant it’s – but a colleague proof read it for me and saved my blushes. Popular parlance gets me though, I find myself using far too many exclamation marks, or joining sentences with “…” instead of “;”.

    However, I don’t think its the truly abysmal spelling and grammar in this chaps email which bugs me. Its the fact he is essentially asking a favour (cheap(er) hour building), and hasn’t even taken the time to research what’s going on. “Sir” is just plain wrong, clearly; and not having the rating or knowing how to get one smack of idleness. To my mind its as simple as that, I doubt I’d have even humoured him as far as you did Maria.

    (Oh, and on the subject of spelling could I take the opportunity to point out the correct spelling of colour, honour, centre, criticise etc. Or could just be the cheeky Limey in me?).

  3. @Craig Colour, honour, centre, and criticise are as correct as color, honor, center, and criticize. The former is the UK/Canada spelling, while the latter is the US spelling (and the spelling that my browser does not underline in red haha).

    I live in Canada, but I don’t really care which one you use: color vs. colour and honor vs. honour, as well as grey vs. gray are okay for me, but centre and criticise don’t go along as well with their pronounciation as center and criticize does.

    You’re right to mention there, their, and they’re however, since that annoys me to no end as well. When writing, we’re trying to convey something – it is my belief that if we don’t spell the word right, we don’t understand the word in our mind. Now, I don’t mentally say “they are” whenever I write “there”, but there’s still some sort of (most likely unconcious) verification going on in my brain.

    …oh and don’t point your finger at men only. xD Actually, you might be right, but… still. :P

    Maria Langer :

    As a writer, I’m probably more sensitive to this than most people. While I don’t expect perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation in every e-mail message I get (or send, for that matter), the message shouldn’t scream out about the complete failure to get it even close.

    Agreed. And the thing is is that I don’t genuinely think that you have to be a “professional” writer to have good grammar. It’s almost kind of like a given to me. People talk well enough, why not write with the same level of proficiency? Any time I hear someone say that they’re not a good writer, despite knowing that there are in fact horrible writers/bloggers out there (at least online), I still cringe on an internal level, as if they’re lying.

    Yes, writing is an art, especially for professional authors, but… I really feel it’s a skill that any average person should and can master before graduating high school. The key phrase here is: expressing yourself. I believe that a person should know how to express him/herself verbally and in writing.

    What is your opinion on immigrants that write in English better than native speakers?

    • Dmytro: You definitely shouldn’t have to be a writer to have good grammar. And I’m not talking about perfect grammar, either. (Hell, my grammar isn’t perfect and I am a professional writer.) I just think that a person should be able to write or speak without glaring errors that make him/her seem uneducated.

      I am constantly amazed by non-native English speakers who speak (or write) in English very well. It’s a real indication of their commitment to learning the language and the value they put on quality education.

What do you think?