Cognitive Daily

An old college friend and accomplished writer, John Scalzi, recently posted a list of writing tips for nonprofessionals, which I’d highly recommend for professionals and nonprofessionals alike. One of his most unusual suggestions is to “speak what you write” — literally, to read your writing out loud before publishing, whether in a blog post or just an e-mail to friends. This, he argues, will not only help catch spelling and other errors (each of which Scalzi says decreases the writer’s apparent IQ by 5 to 10 points), but also help you see whether you’re conveying the meaning you intend.

So what does psychology research have to say about this notion? (No, not that typos decrease your IQ, but the larger idea that reading your words out loud will help you determine if your meaning is clear.)

A team led by Justin Kruger conducted a series of experiments on how we perceive each other’s intentions in e-mail, and their findings do have some relevance to Scalzi’s claims. One common problem in e-mails is deciding whether your correspondent is being serious or sarcastic. Taking Scalzi’s example, most readers will realize that one of his observations was sarcastic: your IQ doesn’t literally decrease when you make a spelling error. But what about the advice given by the aptly-named blogger Grumpy old Bookman, who in response to the much-hyped controversy over fabrications in James Frey’s memoir, suggested that authors literally make everything up, taking no inspiration from the real world? Most commenters to that post clearly thought he was being serious, but I have little doubt that the post was intended to be sarcasm (I also think he anticipated that many readers wouldn’t “get it” — and that was part of the joke).

But do most writers actually accurately anticipate how readers will perceive the tone of their writing? Kruger’s team tested sixty pairs of students at Cornell University, asking each person to choose 10 statements from a list of 20. Each person had a different list; on both lists, some of the statements were sarcastic, and some were serious. In separate rooms, one member of the pair typed each of the chosen statements into an e-mail message. The other member recorded the statements with a tape recorder. Each person guessed whether the message recipient would be able to identify the statements correctly as sarcastic or serious; then they listened or read their partners’ messages and indicated whether they actually thought the message was sarcastic. Here are the results:


While both e-mailers and talkers thought most sentences would be read accurately, e-mail recipients couldn’t judge whether sarcasm was intended — their readers guessed their intentions at a rate no better than chance. By contrast, people speaking sarcastic messages were accurately able to guess when recipients would see the sarcasm. Message recipients were also asked to say how confident they were in their understanding of the message, and again, whether reading e-mails or listening to recordings, nearly everyone believed they had accurately judged the message’s intent.

So talking appears to be a better way of conveying sarcasm than e-mail. But what about Scalzi’s advice — can saying what you write actually help you better understand how your written message will be taken?

In a new experiment, pairs of volunteers e-mailed each other as before, but before they guessed how their message would be taken, they recorded the statements on a tape recorder. Half of the group read the statements as intended, using a sarcastic voice for the sarcastic statements, and a serious voice for serious statements. The other half read them using the opposite intonation: a sarcastic voice for serious statements and a serious voice for sarcastic statements. Here are the results:


When people read the statements with the same intonation as they intended to convey, they were wildly inaccurate at guessing whether readers would judge the statements’ intentions correctly — in fact, readers again were barely better than chance. But when e-mailers tried reading the statements with the opposite intonation, their guesses as to how readers would perform exactly matched actual performance. So here is a case where speaking what you write does appear to help you understand whether readers will read your message the way you intend it to be read.

Kruger and his team argue that their study demonstrates that writers are generally overconfident about what their readers will understand. While confidence about our writing matches our confidence about speaking, in reality, we’re less able to convey those intentions in writing. Amazingly, readers, too, believe they can effectively judge the writer’s intent, so the potential for miscommunicating in e-mail is amplified. The research also appears to support Scalzi’s claim that “speaking what you write” can improve writing, with a caveat: to better understand the potential for misreading, you should try to read your words using an intonation opposite what you intend.

As for the link between spelling errors and IQ, more research will be needed before a definitive answer can be reached (seriously!).

Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., & Ng, Z. (2005). Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89(6), 925-936.


  1. #1 Will McKenna
    February 15, 2006

    I actually think certain spelling errors might be co-related with intelligence.

    Some misspellings do suggest a certain lack of education or a regional diction affecting spelling that probably doesn’t relate to intelligence, or possibly relates negatively.

    Other spelling mistakes, however, such as transposing letters, missing hyphens/apostrophizes, phonetic spellings of certain words or use of homonyms, etc…, might be co-related with a brain that is more concerned with expressing ideas and less concerned with the strict perfection of the results (or that someone is dyslexic) which might, IMHO, co-relate with increased intelligence.

    You would want to study this using email or possibly blog posts not text messages where everyone seems to write like a four year old.

    Full disclosure: I am a terrible speller and a tad dyslexic. I was also a National Merit Scholar and qualify for Mensa. Not that my anecdotal evidence should be considered proof of anything.

  2. #2 Sameer Singh
    February 15, 2006

    Spelling mistakes can be caused by a lot of various reasons, some of which were mentioned by Will. But a large part of spelling errors could be just where they are writing. For example, if I’m writing to a friend, I’d not be concerned with spellings, but on the other hand, for most official purposes, I write slower, with more thought, avoiding spelling mistakes in the first place. Also, some words I cannot mispell just because I happen to talk to someone about the spelling almost a decade ago. I also never mispell words related to my field, and mispell a lot of words I rarely use.

    Will’s point about it being actually negatively correlated with intelligence is an interesting one, but I would be suprised if it is actually more than just circumstancial evidence. There might be other subconcious reasons why intelligent people would spell badly, like with a image they want to portray, or maybe to be not normal. Just like a lot of eccentricities are associated with inteligence, wrong spelling could be the same.

    I’m also guessing bilinguial people might be worse off in terms of spelling, especially if one of their languages has a phonetic script (like for me). Also, if one has been exposed to british and american english at different points of their life, it might confuse their spelling sense further (like for me), even for words which are spelled similarly.

    I think intelligence will be uncorrelated with spelling mistakes, and I would be suprised if there are only one or two factors which are strongly correlated with spelling mistakes. Carrying out a study which ensures all contextual, regional, cultural, educational and vocational effects are negated, leaving ONLY intelligence as the factor to correlate, will be a difficult task indeed.

  3. #3 Jeff
    February 15, 2006

    For further anecdotal evidence – I’d consider my two brothers and myself to all be fairly intelligent. I was a high school valedictorian, and once I decided to go to class and study in college, maintained a 4.0 GPA for five straight semesters in aerospace engineering (and made the dean’s list in all but one of the other semesters, even without going to class). My one brother has a masters in chemical engineering, and the other has a PhD in microbiology. And all three of us are good spellers. I think the main contributing factor was that we all read quite a bit as kids, and continue to do so as adults. So, from my personal experience, at least, I’d be surprised to find a negative correlation between good spelling and intelligence.

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    February 15, 2006

    Hmmm…. Maybe we ought to do a Casual Friday survey on this. Could we do a quick spelling test, then ask readers to self-report SAT or GRE scores? Any other ideas on how to do a short, quick survey to see if there’s a correlation between spelling ability and intelligence?

  5. #5 nil
    February 16, 2006

    I am astonishingly stupid, but I have immaculate spelling and grammar.

  6. #6 Jennifer Grucza
    February 16, 2006

    I think Jeff is right that reading a lot as a child tends to make one a better speller. Your brain just gets so used to seeing the correct spelling – misspelled words just look wrong.

    I hate reading anything with frequent misspellings, and it does tend to influence my opinion of someone’s intelligence, particularly if I’ve never actually met them before.

    That said, I always have to double-check the spelling of words like “maintenance” and “separate” – it’s easy for me to mix up the “a”s and “e”s when there are a bunch of them in the middle of a word, and when substituting the wrong vowel wouldn’t really change the pronounciation.

    About detecting sarcasm in emails: that’s what smiley faces are for, right? 🙂

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    February 16, 2006

    Jennifer —

    The researchers actually conducted a control that allowed participants to use smileys, and still found no difference in the results.

    The problem, apparently, is that there’s no real consensus on what the smileys mean.

  8. #8 Will McKenna
    February 16, 2006

    Well, I’m glad my comment generated a bit of a response.

    Sameer – You bring up a number of excellent points. I think if you wanted useful results you would have to narrow your group to native speakers and dialect (British and American English have many spelling differences).

    Jeff – I never suggested that good spelling would be negatively correlated with intelligence. I suggested some types of bad spelling might correlate negatively and others positively. Specifically, I said, “transposing letters, missing hyphens/apostrophizes, phonetic spellings of certain words or use of homonyms”, might correlate to higher intelligence.

    As far as excellent spellers go I think that is probably an aspect of a very methodical and persistent mindset that may or may not correlate to intelligence generally. However, that mindset does, IMHO, usually correlate with success. Hard workers beat out the “naturally brilliant” more often than not.

    I read a fair bit in my youth as well. I’m not sure how important that is to spelling ability as an adult, although I would assume it helps (so does Spell-Check). However, some research has shown that you read the whole word and your brain will fix the ordering of letters if it can:

    Dave – I think a Casual Friday experiment on this might be interesting, but I’m not sure how you would be able to structure it. Most of the kind of mistakes you would be looking for would occur only when attempting to write rapidly, without sufficient time or interest to review your work. Unfortunately, any test you create for a Casual Friday would make people conscious of their spelling and would be less likely to produce accurate results. That is why I previously suggested using email or blog posts (although those are often reviewed as well) as the basis for analysis.

    Jennifer & Dave Hmm, I always thought that sarcasm was supposed to use a semi-colon, 😉 or 😉 and just regular humor uses the colon :). I guess we need to have a meeting on the meaning of various smileys.

  9. #9 Cat
    February 16, 2006

    Were the typers allowed to use caps or asterixes? E.g., “Yeah, it was *great*/GREAT seeing him there.”

    Did the readers have any type of context to go by? In real life conversations, we have intonation and facial expression cues (mostly in the eyes/eyebrows, I find). Without those, we would have to rely on contextual discrepancies. E.g., if someone was talking about a person s/he disliked and said “Yeah, it was *great* seeing him there”, I think it’d be pretty clear that the comment was sarcastic (even without the * emphasis).

    I guess my point is that if the test sentences were presented outside of context, the results may underestimate people’s ability to detect sarcasm in emails.

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    February 17, 2006


    Sorry I didn’t get your comment up sooner — I hadn’t checked for comments in moderation for couple days. I think your and Jennifer’s disagreement about emoticons offers confirmation of Kruger et al’s point — that there’s no consensus on what the emoticons mean. Even if you know that the semicolon-parenthesis emoticon — 😉 — is supposed to represent a wink, how do you read this statement:

    That Paris Hilton is the very embodiment of feminine beauty 😉

    It could be a sarcastic statement, or the wink could be flirtatious, signifying that the writer is serious.

  11. #11 Ettina
    February 23, 2006

    “As far as excellent spellers go I think that is probably an aspect of a very methodical and persistent mindset that may or may not correlate to intelligence generally. However, that mindset does, IMHO, usually correlate with success. Hard workers beat out the “naturally brilliant” more often than not.”

    I’m not methodical, but I’m a good speller. It’s just that I’m quite visual and read a lot, so I get used to words looking a certain way.
    The relationship between intelligence, hard work and “success” is more complex. A smart person needs exert less effort to achieve certain things, such as grasping a new concept, so they might work less hard and then get caught up to by a less intelligent hard worker. But a severely retarded person, hard worker or not, won’t catch up to normal people. Personally, I think the focus should be on whether theyu’re able to live a happy life – something that severely retarded people seem better at than me.

  12. #12 louis
    March 2, 2006

    I do not believe there is a co-relation between spelling and intelligence.
    I’ve taken several IQ tests and my score is usually above 140, which puts me in the top .5 percentile, however, as many of you have probably noticed by now, I’m not a good speller at all.

    IQ does not equal success, or hard work.

    Learning to spell in the English language requires a lot of time spent in boring repetition. I know that personally, when my mind gets bored I feel very anxious, so I have to devote a lot of energy in to keeping my mind well fed with plenty of brain-stimulating activity. I love learning, in general, but I detest learning boring things, in boring ways, such as repeatedly going over spelling-words so that I can make a B on my spelling test.

    I respect those who have the self-discipline to go through that, and maybe such people, who would be better spellers, have more drive and will be more productive in their life.

    I, for example, am a humble cleaner. That is my profession. I do not judge myself by it, but it may be an indicator of my drive for status and success in this corrupt and base system/society in which we live. However, in my spare time, I program and work with fascinating new technologies. I’m making personal breakthroughs and will soon be at a point where I’m able to market my creation.

  13. #13 Monimonika
    March 7, 2006

    I know this is old, but the bilingual comment from an earlier post caught my eye. I can see that there may be problems for those who are fluent in languages that are similar in vocabulary but differ in spelling conventions for those words.

    My second language is Japanese, which doesn’t share much with English at all, but I do think it influences me on how I remember spellings. For a simple example, let’s take the word “Wednesday”. The pronunciation is something like “Whenzday,” but when I have to spell/type the word out, I always sound it out in my mind as “Wed-ness-day.” So, for a lot of words I have filed in my brain two different pronunciations, one actual, one phonetic.

    I’ve heard somewhere that this is one of the worst ways to remember spelling, but it has helped me out plenty of times. The Japanese part comes in because the kana script it uses is (almost purely) phonetic and I tend to use its phonetic rules when trying to pronounce unfamiliar words (only when the English “rules” fail me).

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