"How do you spell that?"
Sometimes the peoples nationality or first language and how well they spoke English was also a problem.
I certainly wouldn't have done very well myself and I'd have been more than happy to ask how they spelled it.
Apparently many census takers couldn't bring themselves to even ask the "Can you read" and "Can you write" questions or people didn't mind not telling them or even fibbing about it.
I've found census with the questions unanswered or saying yes, when I happen to know they weren't able to read or write even though they had sometimes attended school.
It's also possible those questions weren't considered important and were left out or filled in at a later time. They don't alway seem to go with the person and their age on the line with them.
In many cases it appears those "Can you read" and "Can you write" questions weren't asked of the census taker either. Many of them apparently couldn't spell at all, or for that matter print or write.
I found one census that the lady had tried her best to get all the questions answered and for the most part it was readable, however... when she was to enter her own families information, it apparently wasn't any of the Government's business because most of it was missing!
I believe the upcoming 2010 census has about 10 questions to be answered. It's said to be the shortest census ever. If that's all, I'm wondering if the cost of doing it is even worth it. I imagine people will only answer as they please, not necessarily the truth anyway.
I also imagine that's always been the case.
I do still find the 1850 - 1930 census records help, when I can figure out what I think they say. :-)