Spelling – should we care?

Every so often the question is asked – as it was in the Guardian newspaper this week – whether university teachers should worry about their students’ spelling when marking exams and assignments. This is part of the more general debate which occasionally emerges about the rules of orthography in English. Put succinctly, the question is this: are spelling rules for English so bizarre that we should just abandon them, either allowing a free-for-all or introducing a structured reform of spelling?

The problem with English is the sheer complexity of standard spelling, and its often irrational nature. The spelling of any individual word can be governed by any number of things: its linguistic root, its sound, an historical association, and so forth. But these criteria are not applied consistently to different words, and this produces a bewildering array of spellings for similar sounding words, together with an array of rules that nobody can explain any more. This is sometimes illustrated with words that rhyme but whose spelling is radically different: ‘though’ and ‘go’, ‘their’ and ‘hair’, ‘weir’ and ‘fear’, ‘night’ and ‘quite’. And what is the ‘k’ doing in ‘knife’, or the ‘l’ in ‘palm’?

The argument therefore sometimes goes that English spelling needs major reform, simplifying the complex rules and making spelling much more intuitive in line with phonetic principles. American spelling, it could be argued, has made a start (turning ‘plough’ into ‘plow’, for example), albeit a very modest one. Other languages have done this, and continue to do it. Both French and German spelling has been reformed from time to time.

However, this is not as easy as it might appear to be. These days, nobody knows who ‘owns’ English. It is hardly the property of England alone, and even if it were, who in England is in charge of this? And if someone turned up claiming to have jurisdiction, who would pay any attention in the dozens of countries where English has some official status, and the many others where it is widely spoken?

But beyond that, until someone can be found to effect a reform of orthography in an effective manner, should we attach any significance to bad spelling in documents or, in the education system, in exams or assignments? The basic argument in favour of not caring is that misspelt words don’t matter if the meaning is clear. But the counter-argument is that sloppy spelling suggests sloppy thinking to many readers and undermines the persuasiveness of the document. 

Then it may of course be that the suggestion that spelling doesn’t matter is a comfort to the many people who are no longer secure in their own spelling ability. Maybe this whole debate is pointless – maybe the complexity of English has already overwhelmed its speakers. Or maybe the time has come to give proper attention to the rules of spelling and grammar, both in order to apply them and, where appropriate and possible, to reform them.

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8 Comments on “Spelling – should we care?”

  1. tatoca Says:

    Hello there!
    I don’t think that the English-speaking countries have something like Spain, Portugal and Brasil do, which is the Academia, an official bureau responsible for the language. They “own” the language.
    Recently, the Academias in the Portuguese-speaking countries got together and decided to change grammar and spelling rules in order to achieve a more standard version of Portuguese, that will apply to Brasil, Portugal and the African countries that still speak Portuguese.
    I am not sure if I agree with that; I loved reading a Portuguese author and noticing the differences from that flavour of Portuguese to the one we use in Brasil. That is now gone. When i write in Portuguese, I still use old grammar and spelling rules from even before I was in school, because I think it’s much prettier.
    I don’t know if rules to “force” a language into a certain form actually work. I think language is alive and it comes from the people, and what is not accepted today will be tomorrow and so on.
    It’s a very interesting debate and definitely food for thought – like most of your posts, which always leave me thinking a lot 🙂 Thanks a lot for it!

  2. rgrig Says:

    But the counter-argument is that sloppy spelling suggests sloppy thinking to many readers and undermines the persuasiveness of the document.

    When I read a text with bad spelling and grammar I think: “Why do I have to fight with spelling and grammar to understand the text? The author is wasting my time.” Not: “The author is sloppy. She must be stupid.”

    It’s the same as coding style in programming. Familiar (“correct”/common/mainstream) forms are easier to pattern match and understand by the readers. Anything else takes longer. That’s why we need *some* common ground. Sometimes breaking the rules can be fun, thou.

  3. NJH Says:

    I want there to be rules for spelling – as you say there are precious few in the dumbed-down spelling system we have at the moment. I want this so that more people can have access to literacy; at the moment 30% are excluded. This has terrible consequences for illiteracy is intimately linked with crime, low self esteem and social exclusion.

    I am very keen on good spelling – but research shows that not many are achieving it with the current system. Poor spelling is the norm.

    The “language” is going to evolve whatever we want – it is the writing system that we are mostly discussing here; the two are completely different things. Some languages do not have a writing system, many have two or more (In English we have: American English, UK English, Braille, Txtese, etc, etc). The English writing system is not systematic and so takes longer to learn, more become dispirited & fail to achieve proficiency.

    I would vote for an upgrading to a system that is more internally coherent. not dumbing down, which would happen if we tolerated “bad” spelling. The “spelling elite”, who have already achieved proficiency, might not like this.
    Sorry for the inevitable spelling or grammar errors.

  4. MBM Says:

    The argument that sloppy spelling suggests sloppy thinking is weak and easily exposed to attack. You’d need some proof that there is a correlation. Has anybody ever conducted a study of sloppy spellers, and have they found that they are sloppy thinkers?

    Luckily, we don’t have to resort to half-baked arguments like this because there are *practical* reasons for asking that everybody uses standard, “correct” spelling. In this day and age when practically all documents are produced electronically and then placed on the Internet and indexed by search engines, it’s importantt that everybody spells words in the same way so that things are findable. Say if you have a blog about coffee and you misspell “cappuccino” as “cappeccino”, you are diminishing your chances of being found when somebody searches for “cappuccino” on Google.


  5. […] Another learned man Posted on August 14, 2008 by raptureponies Comments on Spelling. It’s the Prez… he’s talking about spelling. Just thought it was an interesting blog post. Nice to see he’s still going. Then it may of course be that the suggestion that spelling doesn’t matter is a comfort to the many… […]

  6. Wendymr Says:

    Tip of the iceberg, I’m afraid. When we’ve negotiated a solution to the spelling problem (and one acceptable to the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa and other sundry users of English as well as the British and Irish), then there’s the grammar problem. And the punctuation problem. Those who believe that ‘should of’ is the correct grammatical form, or have no idea what subject-verb agreement is all about. Those who cannot identify correct comma usage, let alone correct a run-on sentence or explain the proper use of the semi-colon – or understand why I’ve used two hyphens in this sentence.

    (And that’s not even going into variances in grammar rules between the continents, or the fact that Oxford University Press prefers -ize to -ise and mandates the serial or ‘Oxford’ comma, while most British-English usage is otherwise).

    Personally, if I could understand why on earth many North Americans seem to find it impossible to distinguish between ‘than’ and ‘then’, so that I could educate my colleagues on the difference, I’d consider it a small victory for the English language.

  7. Reece Says:

    I think this whole argument is one of the main reasons the rest of the world thinks Americans are ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’, not because they are but because of the way English seems to get ‘dumbed’ down. Not only is spelling getting changed to make words easier to spell but the pronounciation of words are getting changed to the extent where they just sound wrong and painful to the ears. Even now as I type I can see a spell check is saying I’ve spelt pronounciation wrong.

    I feel one of the reasons English is the hardest language to learn is because of the context other countries use the language in as well as the slang terms, I am Australian I should know; and the way the words are spelt and for those learning the language I feel sorry for them because this divide in spelling wouldn’t be helping them.

  8. knotascot Says:

    A little late in this line of discussion but I must say this fault lies with the teachers as well as the students. Showing my age, there were no computers when I went to school. No electronic documents, mobile phones and the like. Yet it was expected for me to pass my spelling tests; English exams and papers were marked down for spelling errors.
    It is a shame that the teachers do not push this with their teenage, college and university students, how hard is it to look up the word in a dictionary, online dictionaries work just as well.
    Our ignorance shows most vividly when we put our thoughts in writing and the grammar and spelling are incorrect. I place no confidence in articles with spelling mistakes. If you send a CV/Resume out with spelling mistakes, does this make you a stronger candidate than that of one who took the time to correct his?
    Learn to spell, teach your children that it matters. Teachers, give more spelling tests and push your students. We are on the verge of losing the fine art of the English language.


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