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  • Writer's picturestrie4


I can spot a spelling mistake at a hundred paces. I have been fortunate enough never to have had a problem with spelling. That is not to say that I don’t occasionally make a mistake, which these days I can always pass off as a typo. One or two words I have to check; ‘diarrhoea’ is one such. Is there an ‘o’ somewhere? Better look it up. But that is a Greek word, so it doesn’t really count. Why are the Greeks more susceptible to bowel turbulence than anybody else? Is it the sunshine, the olives and the retsina? Why don’t we have a good old Anglo-Saxon word for unwelcome activity in the alimentary canal? Well, we do, but it doesn’t sound very medical. No such luck with numbers though. I never did manage to learn my times table. 7 x 9? 49. (I had to look that one up too.) In such a way did I have more patience than some of my colleagues in the English Department with poor spellers, of which there were a few in my (bottom) sets in the year groups. I knew what it was like to rummage around in the dark recesses of the mind to conjure up a set of letters that looked vaguely right because I used to have similar feelings of panic when confronted with columns of numbers that made as much sense to me as Fermat’s Theorem.

Yet, I always believed that correct spelling was important. Speech is what separates us from animals and accurate expression, in spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary, aids precise communication. “Eats, shoots and leaves”, that famous book by Lynne Truss (not Liz Truss), encapsulates in its title the importance of accurate language; remove the single comma and the meaning of the phrase completely alters. Learning how to spell is a kind of discipline. Paying attention to getting things right is a practice that goes far beyond correct spelling. If you can write a half-decent essay on John Donne’s love poetry that is accurately communicated, cogently argued, fluently expressed and easy to understand, the chances are in later life that your legal deposition, your political treatise, your boardroom presentation, your newspaper article will be better valued. If it is badly spelled, it hints at either carelessness or worse, a lack of education. Now, is that stigma deserved?  A few evenings ago, we were having dinner in very nice, upmarket restaurant. Immediately, my eagle-eyes spotted a spelling mistake on the menu, ‘drizzled with our special barbeque sauce’. The common abbreviation ‘BBQ’ compounds the mistake; it should logically be ‘BBC’, but I understand the possible embarrassment there. Did it affect my enjoyment of the meal? Not at all. Did I point it out to the maitre d? My wife warned me not to be so pernickety.

Does spelling matter anymore? It seems from current teaching practice, not as much as it used to be. Perhaps it is a generational thing. The majority of over 65s believe it is important, but the younger generation – judging by their text messages – don’t seem to care at all. Besides, there is always spellcheck and auto-correct that comes to the rescue. The argument is, so what? You know what I mean. If I write ‘accomodation’, there can be no confusion about my meaning, even if it is one ‘m’ short.

English spelling may seem chaotic; that is because it is. Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, the two languages, English and French – or more specifically, Anglo-Saxon and Norman French – were at loggerheads but gradually, over time, the two were fused together in a sort of higgledy-piggledy fashion. Spelling varied between region to region and even from abbey to abbey (most of the scribes were monks); even Shakespeare spelt his name in six different ways (corrections, please Will, done five times). The invention of the printing press started the process of standardisation, but it took the publication of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language in 1775 to bring a modicum of order to the chaos. Even now, we can’t always agree; across the Pond, our American cousins have their own variations.

While some spelling mistakes are harmless and sometimes funny, many aren’t. A recent press release from the White House called for ‘peach’ in the Middle East. Good for the diet no doubt but it did little for diplomacy. A recent multi-million court case in the UK rested on a spelling mistake, a single rogue letter, no less. In Companies House records, it was stated that the firm Taylor and Sons had been wound up. Mayhem ensued before it was pointed out that in fact the firm Taylor and Son, not Sons, was the company that had collapsed. The lawyers struck lucky with that one. A spelling mistake at school caused much amusement as well as some confusion. The sign read ‘Lavoratory’ instead of ‘Laboratory’.I could go on….

Language is a living, breathing organism. If it atrophies, or even resists change, it soon dies, like Latin. To our great good fortune, English is particularly flexible and adaptable and very much alive. Spelling is in a continuous state of flux. Take the opening couplet of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

“Whan that Aprille with his shours soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote…”        (‘soote’ means ‘sweet’)

Some very odd spelling there but we catch his drift; pretty topical at the moment, just as we have suffered the wettest March on record.

So, my conviction still holds firm. It is better to spell correctly than to open yourself to embarrassment and ridicule for sloppy or downright inaccurate spelling.


And then I read this….

I cdnuolt blveiee that I cluod auclaity uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonnmneal pweor of the human mind. Aocordnig to rschrrarch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’tmttaer in waht odwrer the lrtters in a wrod are. The only iprmoarnt thing is that the frist and lsat ltreers be in the rghitpclae. This is bcuseae the human mind deos not raed erveylteter but the word as a wlohe. Amzanig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas thought slpeling was ipmorantt!

My godoenses! Now, I’m not so srue auobt my coinctivon.

As alwaysShakespeare/Shakespere/Shackspeare/Shaksper/Shacksper/Shackspeare/ put it better than most:

“To spell, or not to spell, that is the question.” (with apologies to Hamlet)

Incidentally, Shakespeare the name comes from Norman French, Jacques-Pierre.

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