Entirely principled

At the risk of sounding like a spelling and grammar commissar, I was somewhat taken aback when I saw this headline on the BBC news website: ‘Student leaders urge university principles to restrict fees.’ For the avoidance of doubt, this was entirely a BBC mistake, as the substantive article showed that the ‘student leaders’ of the title used the correct spelling. But then again, about 5 per cent of all communications addressed to me suggest I am the Principle of RGU.

Of course nobody should get too worked up about one spelling mistake, or two similar sounding words confused. The world will go on, regardless. But precision of language and accuracy of spelling and grammar are being eroded, and when that hits the gold standard (the BBC), we may sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, I have recently heard experts in the history of English point out that the kind of precision I am talking about is not part of the historic culture of the English language. Consistency of spelling in English is quite a recent development, and Shakespeare was able to do what he did before we reached that state. So, is it perhaps time for us to let go of all this spelling pedantry and let people do whatever they want to do? Is that the more principled approach?

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12 Comments on “Entirely principled”

  1. Conor Says:

    Consistency in spelling came with dictionaries. It is a mark of progress, in my opinion.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Your experts in the history of English didn’t point out that for much of that time frame the language of English was thought of as the noise of animals, Latin being the medium for human beings. Not of course that English was being singled out, any native language was held in that regard.
    I expect we’ve a lot to thank Martin Luther one way or another. Well, Geneva and Oxford really.
    Funny really, but in the getting rid of Latin they more or less replaced it with the Oxford patois. Only to copper-fasten it in the KJV.

    As to the error. This is not in the fayre/fair-fare category and more I suspect of the spell-check. Something that you need to be very certain of your correctness to override. Who nowadays will accept the red blots of error spattered about their screen caused by adding ‘u’ and switching ‘s’ for ‘z’ without a bead of sweat oozing from the brow.
    And where the dickens do you get an English English dictionary that’ll stick in the browser anyway.

    • Jilly Says:

      The disappearing English English dictionary in computers is one of my bug-bears too!

      As for the BBC website mistake, it was probably corrected later, I would presume? I’ve noticed that a huge number of spelling errors, missing words etc get into ‘breaking news’ stories on websites – presumably because of the instant nature of their uploading – which are corrected later.

      As for FvP’s main point, I tend to take the view that while English is a living language, does evolve, and shouldn’t be approached as a game with an immovable set of rules (as Lynn Truss tends to do), the rules of grammar and spelling which affect precise meaning really do matter. So the difference between principle and principal is important!


    • Well yes, though I’d hate to be thanking Geneva for anything much…🙂

  3. Andrew Fisher Says:

    Is there a principle at work here? You are for old-fashioned apostrophe use, against old-fashioned capitalisation, and for redundant spellings even in cases like dependent/dependant or principle/principal where there is no earthly possibility of confusion. I appreciate that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but I can’t quite grasp the larger vision.


    • Maybe there’s just a Principal at work…

      Actually, I’m in favour of consistency, which means that where the traditional rule may still work, I’m for that, but where we have to accept it’s got to be abandoned, I’m for that, too. My overall approach: whatever facilitates effective and precise communication.

  4. anna notaro Says:

    It is true that as the expert said in that BBC radio interview you are referring to ‘Consistency of spelling in English is quite a recent development…’ it is also true though that the first English grammar, Pamphlet for Grammar by William Bullokar, written with the ostensible goal of demonstrating that English was just as rule-bound as Latin, was published already in 1586. Just being pedantic, I guess🙂
    Grammar (literally the “art of knowing one’s letters”) is a fascinating topic and opinions are still divided as to whether natural selection favored its evolution in language sometime around the appearance of the Homo sapiens, ca. 400,000 years ago…’Grammar Wars’ have been fought over the centuries among educators on pamphlets and, most recently in discussion lists and professional journals, often in a very futile manner, in fact the Irish statesman Jack Lynch might have had a pont when he said: ‘Arguments over grammar and style are often as fierce as those over IBM versus Mac, and as fruitless as Coke versus Pepsi and boxers versus briefs’.
    Personally, I do think that there is a point though in caring about grammar and in paying attention to its ‘evolution’, as long as it does not become a ‘cult of correctness’, that is. For educators in particular grammar should be more than an issue of correctness, grammar gives students something akin to what it did for Frederick Douglass (the American former slave who went on to become a social reformer, orator, writer and statesman) who saw its study as a means of gaining “intellectual and ethical power to sustain freedom within a community”. In other words, there much more to grammar (and literacy) than just the pedantic application of immutable ‘rules’, it is empowering for the individual and at the core of our communities.

  5. Pauline Says:

    Found the same this week at my child’s school – with the words use the correct ‘color’ in her spelling instructions – response – ‘I just pulled down a set of cards from the shelf without checking for ‘Americanisms’. I will check the rest of the cards to remove the odd one or two’ ! What the response should have been was whoever printed them off the computer had not changed the USA spelling to UK.

  6. Al Says:

    The bigger issue here is that people should have the practised abilitiy to discriminate text rather than the end product. Isnt the problem that people arent able to or dont read at that level even within professional occupations.

    How can we have laws or contracts without a set standard?

  7. ObsessiveMathsFreak Says:

    English spelling is currently in a state of extreme upheaval following the introduced of spell-checking word processors which default to US spelling, and above all to the international pot-pourri of websites which are increasingly the primary reading material of english speakers.

    Personally, I think the standardisation of english spelling and grammar is finally going to come in the form of an RFC memo of some kind or the other.

  8. Ned Costello Says:

    We should forego all principals

  9. no-name Says:

    If one accepts the principle
    that the primary purpose of language is thought, its function in
    communication only secondary, then spelling does not matter very much,
    unless it causes self-confusion in the way that profoundly poor
    handwriting can. As a matter of communication it occasionally does
    cause confusion, but it is mainly a matter of presentation of self.
    Pointing out unconventional spelling is best taken in the spirit of
    someone who is kind enough to point out that one’s clothes are
    evidently unintendedly revealing.


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