Sunday, October 26, 2008


How important is it to be able to spell correctly?

I suspect the answer you give to that will depend upon a) your age, b) how important precision and detail are in your life, and possibly c) how important language, its flow, nuances and cadences is to you.

You probably won’t take too long to decide on which side of that fence I sit. My answers to the three questions are – a) Very, b) A lot and c) A lot.

As a counter argument, it’s a reasonable point that the sole, or at least the major purpose of language is communication. How you do it is immaterial. If you get your message across, then surely it’s Job Done. And anyway, language is organic, it lives from century to century. Most of us cannot understand the 13th Century English of Chaucer. We struggle manfully (or is it personfully?) with some of the flow and words of Shakespeare, wonder when the sentences of Jane Austin and Thomas Hardy will ever end. We even fail to pick up some of the meanings and subtleties of the elegantly chosen and beautifully crafted 1930s words of PG Wodehouse. And don’t even go anywhere near James Joyce’s Ulysses. Do you know anyone who has got anywhere close to finishing it? Me neither.

With something like Ian Fleming's James Bond however, we can all make sense of it. He broadly speaks the language, and uses the same words we use today. Well, mostly, anyway. If you asked some of our younger brethren, however, what they thought of it they might say it was “gr8”, which, in turn, gives us a clue where language may well be going in the future.
I can understand that “gr8” has 3 components and “great” has 5, and that “great” can sound like “grate”, which potentially could cause confusion. “gr8” (no capital letter – what’s the point of a wasted keystroke?) is therefore arguably more efficient, and presumably therefore it must be better, goes the logic. But it gr8s on me at least.

The human eye/mind combination is a fascinating combination. Read the following, for instance.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I aulaclty cluod uesdnatnrd waht I was rdgnieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid -- aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are pelacd, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be in the rghit pclaes. ?The rset can be a taotl mses and you sitll can raed it wouthit a porblem.

Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. ?Amzanig huh? ?Yaeh, and I awlyas thohugt slpeling was imtorpant? Just geos to sohw?

The blaze of red, squiggly underlining that now sits on my screen is almost blinding me, as Mr Gates’ spellchecker overheats and throws every one of its toys out of the pram at once. It seems that as long as the first and the last letters of each word are in the right place, the mind can crack it relatively easily, as you did. But you (or at least I) really don’t want what I read to look like that. I need to know how it should be written in the first place to know how to unravel the deliberate jumbling up. If I couldn’t spell properly, it would simply be a code.

Now in the wider field, the fact that I don’t like it is neither here nor there. Except of course for me, it is here. So, when I used to receive CVs from job applicants at work, the misspelled ones were put straightaway very low down in the pile. They had an immediate hill to climb which others did not. That may be a bit unfair, but that was the way it was. If you don't know or can’t be bothered to spell correctly, and can’t handle or operate the necessary rigidity of the underlying Byzantine rules of spelling, then where else do you cut corners in a job. And by the way, please don’t say Dyslexia to me – I understand those issues only too well, and take them into account.

To my undoubtedly biased mind, accurate spelling does aid understanding. It is simply better to do it correctly and it looks and feels so much better. There’s enough ugliness in the world without people being unable to spell correctly.

Try “supersede”. Now don’t tell me you thought it had a “c” in it. Immediately, we’re 50 years back in Rev. Drake Brockman’s Latin class now. "Gerund or Gerundive, Cable? Dative or Ablative, anyone? Anyone??" Cue the speedy arrival of a badly but strongly thrown Board Rubber.

You know, the rectangular wooden ones with sharp edges, that hurt.

So, “Super” meaning “above”, and “sedeo” meaning “I sit”. Result “supersede” – “I sit above”. Where’s the difficulty there? But bet your friends a £ each to spell it correctly, and you’ll make money. You might lose a few friends, but then perhaps you shouldn’t be consorting with illiterates!

So rightly or wrongly, there we are.

In the same vein, or is it vain, or even vane, I read an article last week where some of our best known authors submitted themselves rather bravely to a spelling test. The point of the piece was to show that if the authors were not word perfect, then why did it matter? Predictably, they did not all cover themselves with glory. One word seemed to get them all stumped.

So, now a spelling test. How about “dessicate”? As in Coconut, and Air Drying.

You try. Now you might think it’s possible, of course, that there could conceivably be a clue in Sentence 2 of the last paragraph. But I might, again of course, have deliberately misspelled it to put you off the scent.

Or is it “sent”?



1 comment:

Whitenoise said...

I make an effort, even with a quick comment here in blog-land, but I see proper spelling more as a cosmetic issue. Like a scratch on a fine coat of paint, an error simply detracts from an otherwise fine piece of work.