15 Famous Thinkers Who Couldn’t Spell

15 thinkers that couldn't spell

Words can be tricky things, often spelled quite differently than how they sound, coming from foreign languages with different sets of rules, or being just plain weird. It’s no wonder then that so many people struggle with spelling, even those who are generally regarded as having some seriously brilliant minds. No, it’s not just grade-schoolers, college students, and the everyday man who struggles with the age old “i before e” dilemma, but also scientists, writers, and world leaders. Here, you’ll find a list of great thinkers who made great strides in their respective fields, but never could quite conquer the perils of spelling.

  1. Alfred Mosher Butts

    Unfamiliar with this name? Well, you’re probably familiar with what he created, though it might surprise you to learn that Butts was a bad speller. He created the iconic and still quite popular game Scrabble, which requires one to be adept at spelling. The inventor himself was admittedly not the best speller, often scoring only 300 points on average in a game of Scrabble.

  2. William Faulkner

    Faulkner wasn’t a truly terrible speller, but if you take a look at his original manuscripts there are some definite errors the iconic Southern author wouldn’t have wanted to see in print. Despite setting many of his famous books and short stories in the difficult to spell and pronounce Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner’s editors confirm that despite their repeated attempts to point out his mistakes, he made spelling errors all through his career.

  3. F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Few writers are so known for their bad spelling as Fitzgerald. How bad, you say? Fitzgerald wasn’t even able to spell the name of one of his closest friends, Hemingway, often misaddressing him in correspondence and papers as “Earnest Hemminway.” The editor of his collected letters called him a “lamentable speller” who struggled with words like “definite” and “criticism.” Still, his poor spelling didn’t seem to do the author any harm, and many of his works are regarded as literary masterpieces today.

  4. Ernest Hemingway

    Ernest Hemingway may not have had much room to judge when it came to his friend Fitzgerald not spelling his name correctly. Long before the days of spell check, Hemingway had to rely on newspaper and book editors to catch his mistakes, a job which they often complained would be a lot easier if he would make an effort to spell things correctly (though Hemingway retorted that that’s what they were being paid to do).

  5. John Keats

    The brilliant Keats died quite young at only 26, so one can hardly blame him for not spending time worrying about spelling in his written works. If readers want to get a taste of his more interesting spelling choices, they only need turn to his letters. They record many odd spelling choices, including the misspelling of purple as “purplue” in a letter to his love Fanny Brawne, a misspelling which she questioned and Keats tried to cover up by saying he was creating a new combination of purple and blue.

  6. Jane Austen

    Jane Austen may have a place among the literary elites today, but when it came to spelling and grammar she wasn’t too handy with either. Research into her personal letters and manuscripts has exposed numerous errors in spelling and grammar that were corrected later by her early editor, William Gifford. One of her favorite misspellings? She often spelled “scissors” as “scissars.”

  7. Fannie Flagg

    Actress and author Fannie Flagg has had great success in her literary career, most notably with the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe which was later adapted into a highly successful film. Yet writing never came easy to Flagg, who has dyslexia. She has said she was challenged as a writer because she was “severely dyslexic and couldn’t spell, still can’t spell. So I was discouraged from writing and embarrassed.” Flagg obviously overcame her embarrassment, and has since written numerous books and screenplays.

  8. Albert Einstein

    Being bilingual, one could hardly blame Einstein for being a bad speller in English. Yet it wasn’t just in English that Einstein struggled. He also was a pretty bad speller in his native German, and got even worse when he began using English more regularly. Of course, Einstein didn’t make those same errors when it came to writing mathematical equations, a fact that helped to make his name synonymous with genius today.

  9. Winston Churchill

    While today Churchill may be regarded as a great leader and speaker, he had a rough start in his schooling, always struggling with spelling and writing. He was a notoriously bad speller throughout his life, but he never let it hold him back. He battled through his difficulties, which also included a speech impediment, to leave his mark on the world.

  10. Leonardo Da Vinci

    Leonardo helped define the term “Renaissance man,” excelling in both the arts and the sciences, but spelling may not have been his forte. He is quoted as having once said, “You should prefer a good scientist without literary abilities than a literate one without scientific skills.” Some historians believe he may have been dyslexic (there is no way to prove that, of course) as his journals and writings are riddled with spelling errors common with dyslexics.

  11. Agatha Christie

    Agatha Christie penned some of the bestselling books ever created, but the author admitted once, “I, myself, was always recognized … as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was … an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.” Despite her struggles with spelling, Christie was an enormously successful writer, and has gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time.

  12. John F. Kennedy Jr.

    JFK is a figure that has fascinated the American public for decades, but what many may not know is just how bad of a speller the famous president was. He was outed for his poor spelling by his wife, Jackie, though she was a French literature major in college and would later become a book editor, so she may have been a pretty harsh critic.

  13. W.B. Yeats

    Yeats is yet another famous author who, while quite adept at writing, was pretty terrible when it came to spelling. To see examples of his spelling errors, one need only find a copy of his collected letters which contain misspellings like “feal” for “feel” and “sleap” for “sleep”. Despite his inadequacy when it came to spelling, Yeats was a prolific and very successful writer, winning a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

  14. John Irving

    John Irving is another author on this list whose poor spelling was the result of dyslexia. Sadly, Irving wasn’t recognized as having dyslexia until much later in his life, stating, “The diagnosis of dyslexia wasn’t available in the late fifties — bad spelling like mine was considered a psychological problem by the language therapist who evaluated my mysterious case. When the repeated courses of language therapy were judged to have had no discernible influence on me, I was turned over to the school psychiatrist.” Irving’s struggles with spelling affected him deeply, and he even reflects on them in one of his most famous novels, The World According to Garp, stating that English is such a mishmash of different languages that no one should ever feel stupid for being a bad speller.

  15. Benjamin Franklin

    Ben Franklin wasn’t a particularly good speller in his time, and actually felt that the alphabet as it stood (and still does today) was what was holding so many back from being able to spell. In a letter he once wrote, “You need not be concerned in writing to me about your bad spelling, for in my opinion as our alphabet now stands the bad spelling, or what is called so, is generally best, as conforming to the sound of the letters and of the words.” Whether you struggle with spelling or not, you have to admit he has a point, as many words are spelled quite differently than they sound.

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18 replies
  1. Elizabeth Zelvin
    Elizabeth Zelvin says:

    I was a spelling bee champ as a kid, unlike these folks, but what’s wigging me out is the portraits: Einstein, Churchill, and Franklin don’t look old to me any more. Scary!

  2. Pat Marinelli
    Pat Marinelli says:

    Stephen J Cannell used an IBM Slectric typewriter to type his work (thus he wife suggested the logo for his shows) and had an assistant who made all the corrections and typed his mss into a computer. He told me he had a closet full of typewriters in case his broke. Told me also to never let dyslexia hold be back from writing. Best writing advice I was ever given.

    After failing sight reading in school, I was put in phonetic reading and memorized spelling words. Never passed a spelling test in all my years of school. I am very thankful for spell check and auto correct because there are certain words I know how to spell, know the keyboard, but they never ever get typed correctly.

  3. Sally Carpenter
    Sally Carpenter says:

    The late TV mystery writer Stephen Cannell was dyslexic and he suffered with low grades in school until a college teacher overlooked his errors and encouraged his creativity. I assume his secretaries or editors corrected his manuscripts and scripts.

  4. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe says:

    And it’s going to get worse, now that 48 states no longer require cursive writing to be taught in public schools. Writing and spelling and reading all go together. But that soapbox is for another blog.

  5. Dave Bennett
    Dave Bennett says:

    Note to Dave Swords: Just shows what a good editor can do :O)

    I think it’s a little unfair to cite Austen, Shakespeare and others of the period before the late 19th century. English spelling was very flexible until “cast in stone” in such things as the OED, and even now is evolving. Shakespeare, in fact, spelled his own name several different ways. Despite the difficulty, English is the most widely understood, if not spoken, language on the planet.

  6. Dave Swords
    Dave Swords says:

    Re: Agatha Christie

    “Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality.”

    “has gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time.”

    I find it amazing that these two statements are about the same person.

  7. Rebecca Butler
    Rebecca Butler says:

    Lee, glad you began with a street sign–paid for with tax dollars. In Louisiana that’s spelled phonetically: CHIREN or CHIRENS.

  8. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Of course, texting isn’t helping anyone either. Kids are learning “text speak” in some schools, and they’re allowed to use it in papers and reports too.

    I can see it now…

    Genrl G Wshton x’d De. 2 chp chry tr. Bcme pres n hd woodn teeth. Da n’d.

  9. Diane Gilbert Madsen
    Diane Gilbert Madsen says:

    Loved your post. They said Shakespeare too was a poor speller, but maybe the fluidity of the English language – including spelling errors – is what makes English such a strong language. Recent MRI analysis mapping areas of the brain used in reading and writing has found that a neurological glitch in accessing the spelling part of the brain affects some 20% of the population. So we’ll have to be more tolerant of bad spelling in everyone – including spellcheck!

  10. Wally Lind
    Wally Lind says:

    General George Patton was dyslexic and had these problems. As I recall, he had to repeat a year at the point. Later, he was one of the richest officers in the Army, and I’m sure he had whatever help he needed. My experience is that dyslexics have poor memories for details, like spelling, and for structured thing, in general. They are innovative, because they are making up their own structures, as they go along. Thank god for spell and grammar check. However, you have no idea hoe frustrating it can be to redo at least on word in most of your sentences. I think that’s why I was good at finding and collecting evidence. I didn’t trust my perceptions, and went over scenes again and again. That was satisfying.

  11. Toni Anderson
    Toni Anderson says:

    Me too! I’m a hopeless speller. I blame it on being a Brit in Canada writing for US publisher 🙂 My daughter is an amazing speller and was just in the school Spelling Bee. Fascinating stuff 🙂

  12. Winslow Eliot
    Winslow Eliot says:

    This is fascinating but unsurprising. Spelling is an arbitrary skill, and the concept of a dictionary is a fairly recent one. What is interesting to me is that none of these great thinkers struggled with grammar, which is an inherent part of our human psyches: “I am”(subject verb) or “I feel hungry” (subject verb object). There’s the foundation of language! Grammar is innate, intuitive, even if you don’t know the rules. But spelling is made up – arbitrary – and if you’re not naturally a good speller can be inhibiting and annoying. Great post!

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