Posted tagged ‘orthography’

Spelling – should we care?

August 8, 2008

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.