by Kent Oswald

A no judgement zone is an unlikely no judgment zone.

Not in seven months of visits to Planet Fitness with the former phrasing stuffed into the graphics on rows of machines and splattered across walls did I make out the extra “e.” The letter that makes sense, but also makes the word incorrectly spelled, finally popped while I stared at the signage on the machine in front of me between reps. Suddenly it was everywhere and I was overcome with a shaming indictment of my proofreading. Since the company had communicated its message to me perfectly well for a long time, what did it matter if they had thrown an extra “e” into the mix?

On a LinkedIn writers group board I asked what others may have learned about their own writing from seeing an incorrectly spelled word. Comments turned immediately to broad brushstroke exasperation at the decline of literacy, as well as vehement declarations that missing or added letters confirmed a negative opinion of writer and his/her grasp of the subject. The criticism was not necessarily polite. None took up the prompt to proffer any writerly life lessons.

Misspellings provoke judgment from readers who catch errors. However, as with most misspellers, Planet Fitness had moved on. According to a spokesperson, “Spelling judgement with an ‘e’ started out as a mistake. Back in 1998 we considered changing it to the traditional spelling, but decided to keep it because it fit with our brand personality—we are judgment free on all matters, so what better way to demonstrate this than by keeping the original incorrect spelling.” For context, it should be noted that PF is not the only corporation that comfortably plays fast and loose with language.

Like beauty, misspellings are in the eyes (and brains) of the beholders. I don’t buy into the spokesperson’s additional spin that, “While there is no research available, we know from speaking with club members, media and employees that the spelling of ‘Judgement Free Zone’ is another fun, quirky reason why people love Planet Fitness.” I do agree that their branding message is (and was) perfectly clear … at least until I was netted by how the medium was suddenly part of the message (cue Marshall McCluhan, or perhaps on a particularly stormy day Noam Chomsky.

The point is that seeing judgment misspelled led to irrelevant thoughts. I harmed myself by obsessing over someone else’s fairly innocuous (and relatively common) mistake. Membership is $10 a month to play on weight and aerobic machines: the contract offers no grammar or spelling promises. My being troubled enough by the extra “e” to lose focus and interrupt the limited time I allow for exercise is a problem I need to own. It seems a small-scale version of denigrating William Shakespeare as a writer and refusing to marvel at his plots and characters after discovering a copy of the First Folio rife with varied spellings and other inconsistencies.

Fortunately for the Bard, he had neither critics nor teachers like the one burned into the memory of business and technology journalist Dann Anthony Maurno, one of the writers who chimed in to the LinkedIn discussion. Ms. Scully, charged with teaching Maurno and fellow six-year-olds at New Place School, clonked his young head for misspelling words like “anorak.” As an American new to an English public school on the rather harsh and dogmatic end of the education spectrum, he didn’t recognize the word as an equivalent for “jacket” and tried to put the letters through some sort of sounding-it-out strategy.

While I have no actual Ms. Scully, there is the constantly abashed-but-outraged voice in my head condemning every HOWCOULDYOUMISSTHAT error in texts read, reread, and re-re-reread … and often published. Fortunately, the mistakes of others provide comfort that I am not alone. They may even provide mild amusement amid a tragedy, such as when USA Today and others headlined a horrific accident involving a bus and “duck” boat as grizzly like the bear rather than “grisly.”

Again, judgment.

As for the misspellings themselves, we all have the everready excuse that English is a language convoluted with problems arising from different roots and pronunciation. The tongue was processing standardization as middle English was becoming modern, and prior to the widespread use of a printing press demanded an end to variations (not that this keeps any from struggling still between American and British variants). Written communication evolves from an oral tradition and English spelling, unlike French, morphs somewhat willy-nilly, with no institution like the Académie française standing guard against word barbarians.

Written communication evolves from an oral tradition and English spelling, unlike French, morphs somewhat willy-nilly, with no institution like the Académie française standing guard against word barbarians.

Given how easy it is to discover errors in work that is not our own, someone presumably has been decrying the spelling error of someone else since pretty much the time of the first glyph, if not all the way back to the arch-scratch on a cave wall. Many since then, no doubt, have taken the tack of Joe Queenan, who railed in the Wall Street Journal against “morons.” Others, marshaling arguments to their side and seeking influence, have attempted to find a diplomatic way into and a graceful exit from the “Hawks vs. Hippie dilemma.” The result has been … Actually, other than provoking anger and shame I am not sure what the result has been.

What makes this a particularly interesting point in literary time to consider “misspellings” is that the continuing evolution of communication has reached an age history will someday likely consider noteworthy. Technology supports spell checkers (which are foolproof except for errors such as “to” for “too,” or “they’re for “their” or “there,” as well as sourcing a myriad automatic and undesired corrections), but also new modes of communication, primarily through social media that erode and/or morph social conventions, and promote a sort of “LOLsprechen” that deems “r” (in)correct as a spelling for “are.”

Context matters, making definitive spelling rules hard to create. A writer might choose a particular spelling to communicate something about the character or consciously call attention to the particular phrase. S/he might be engaged in some sort of metacommunication with the reader, which the reader may or may not be prepared to understand. As in the case of Planet Fitness, the acknowledged original error may turn out to be a fortunate path. Or, and again only thinking specifically about my own writing, it might actually be the kind of unintended oopsie, inert and awaiting change to its correct iteration.

The mistake might be of the kind that becomes pop culture fodder, such as the woman nabbed by police after keying “wore” on car of someone with whom she thought her boyfriend was cheating, or the forgers who trailed crumbs to their doorstep by misspelling “Texas” during a caper in Houston. In such a case we all become judge and jury. For want of a letter, one might be called to intense soul searching, as was the woman who worried herself over how or why or if she was insulted someone had offered her $3500 for sex, until her realization that the most off-putting part of the situation was her propositioner’s concern that something involved with the transaction be “lubercated.”

Ultimately, the mistake is personal and between writer and reader. Post-discovery of the extra “e” I make a greater effort to proofread more carefully, type a bit more gingerly, and check for spelling with less hesitation. I also recognize that while a need for standardization strikes me as obvious if people are to have any chance to understand each other with future written communication, there is an excitement to the fantasy that everyone can be their own Shakespeare and claim tiny bits of a common language as their own.

I have been humbled, and not just because misspellings still litter the sidewalks and highways of my typing. It turns out that amid the sweat, screens, blank stares and smells—in short a landscape I would have vehemently argued was near-anathema to the written word—I found a non-judgment about communication. I have to admit that as far as Planet Fitness and their no judgement zone is concerned, mission accomplished.

Kent Oswald’s work has appeared in LA Times Book Reviews, Tennis Industry, Cigar Aficionado, Six Sentences, and elsewhere. He tweets @Ready4Amy and @CupidAlleyChoco.