Spelling B******

This week a university lecturer, Ken Smith, suggested that spelling “mistakes” should be accepted as variants. This has upset Ideas of Civilisation and Colin Campbell among others.

I side with Ken Smith on this occasion though. I hate spelling mistakes and love to point them out. Only yesterday I saw a greengrocers’ apostrophe and instinctively growled. But that is only because I am a cheeky wee pedant. Deep down, I know that the rules of the English language are strange and, ultimately, pointless.

What is the purpose of language? I would say language is what allows people to communicate with each other. Accordingly, rules should develop naturally, and as long as the two parties communicating understand each other all is well. However, for grammar fascists, language rules are just an opportunity to crack the whip.

It is worth remembering that a strict one-size-fits-all suite of language rules is a very modern concept. Standardised spellings only came in when some smart fellow decided to become the first lexicographer and hoodwink people into believing his services were vital.

William Shakespeare did not even have a standardised spelling for his own name. Was he wrong? If we follow the joke that the easiest mark in an exam is for spelling your name correctly, it looks like Shakespeare himself would have failed his English GCSE.

Now, hopefully you have noticed that I like to take care over my spelling and suchlike. But this is a personal choice that I took because I believe that adhering to these rules allows me to reach the widest audience possible. That, and it means I don’t get bombarded by complaints from snobs.

If someone else is content to spell things incorrectly but can still convey their message to its intended recipient then that is their personal choice. There is nothing wrong with people deciding how they can speak and write for themselves.

Language has always evolved naturally, and I see no reason why that should stop now. The purpose of a dictionary is to record language as it is written, not to tell people how to write it. If different people spell things in different ways, then that is just part of life’s rich tapestry.

After all, we tolerate and even celebrate — and rightly so — variations in pronunciation in the English language. Only the snobbiest of snobs would demand that everyone speaks RP. In this age where regional accents are celebrated, we usually find we have no trouble understanding people. So why should people also be expected to write in the same bland, standardised, colourless RP all the time?

What gets me is the sheer snobbery of some people who insist on “correct” spellings. Who is to say that you are right and they are wrong? Closing your ears and stomping your feet complaining about how thick the other person is does not get anyone anywhere. Is there not room for some give and take, just as there is when having a conversation with people who have a different accent?

Ideas of Civilisation attempted to show how ludicrous Ken Smith’s suggestion is by filling his post with a myriad of misspellings. Of course, were Ken Smith’s idea to take hold and language was allowed to evolve naturally, we almost certainly would not face a wholesale dumping of the dictionary, with standards completely replaced by arbitrariness. Instead, new standards would emerge while the most common misspellings would be tolerated.

Txt spk is the perfect example. Snobs may turn their nose up at it, but there is no denying that this development which emerged naturally has had an important influence in simplifying the language and removing barriers to communication. In fact, it is an ingenious solution to the problem we all face, stuck with the QWERTY system which was originally designed to slow typists down. What is wrong with people using their initiative to speed things up again?

Then there is the text message itself, where brevity is key. Messages are limited to 160 characters which means you have to keep it short if you want to avoid being charged double or even triple your normal rate. The new standard of abbreviations is a clever and natural way to evade this restriction.

That is not to mention instant messaging, where speed is as important as clarity. When you are having a fast-paced IM conversation, it is only sensible to take the odd short cut. It should be no surprise that in an age where we rely more heavily than ever on inefficient keyboards and restrictive technologies that new standards should emerge.

Moreover, what is wrong with “embarassing”, “beleive” or “pleasent”? Or even the odd “there” instead of “their” or vice-versa? You would still know exactly what I meant were I to use those spellings. Any exam marker with two brain cells to rub together would know that as well. If he were to mark down someone for putting one ‘r’ instead of two even though the meaning is still perfectly clear, then that would make him a petulant, authoritarian shit.


  1. Well….
    What if the author was trying to communicate in the old fashioned way by printed words in a book. Are misspellings ok there?
    (Judging by some of the books I’ve read recently the answer is already yes.)
    But… when I see a word for the first time – especially in a supposedly authoritative medium like a book – I assume the spelling is “correct.” If it’s incorrect I labour under that misapprehension for a long time; or at least until I consult a dictionary.
    The importance of communication is that you must consider the intended reader. So txt spk is fine in txts.
    But in a book….
    If I came across a piece of writing where the spelling was consistently awry then I simply could not read it; I would give up and the intended communication would then be lost.
    Also in an exam or test if the examinee does not consider the examiner when writing they run the risk of being misunderstood and marked down accordingly. There is, I would submit, no place for txt spk in such a formal situation as an exam. The examiner has to be able to read the answer. Provided the meaning is clear there is no problem but if it’s confusing or can be misread then the examinee loses out as a result.
    I once was given an answer that looked like “Ka” to a question in a Science test.
    Turned out the pupil had written “K9” meaning “canine.” How was I to know?

  2. The problem with spelling variants is when they coincide with other words (and people get confused enough with different words spelt the same). So if “road” was written “roade”, big deal. But if it’s written “rode”, it means something else. (And if it’s written “read”…)

  3. Jack, I completely agree with you (as I say in the post) that “The importance of communication is that you must consider the intended reader.” That’s precisely why I think language rules are not important — because people can make these decisions for themselves.

    Now in the case of an exam a wise student obviously ought to write with as much clarity as possible if they want to get a high mark. ‘K9’ is obviously pretty stupid, and most forms of txt spk are not acceptable in an exam answer, particularly since for many people over the age of 30-or-so, txt spk may as well be a foreign language.

    However, I fail to see the controversy surrounding Ken Smith’s suggested spelling variants which include “twelth”, “arguement” and “truely”. Why not other common misspellings such as the infamous “potatoe”? In each case it is perfectly obvious what the intended meaning is.

    Will, that would be a valid point if it wasn’t an inherent problem of the English language anyway. Record, record; wind, wind; can, can; read, read (as you point out yourself)…

  4. Oh so it’s like that is it! I thought my wrong spelling intro was funny!

    In any case surely the point you make in the last comment – when you agree with the statement “The importance of communication is that you must consider the intended reader” – entirely undermines your basic premise?

    As Jack showed, what happens when one person uses a spelling or phrase that the other person is not familiar with? And given that it’s not always possible to know this when two people communicate the only way to ensure this happens without problems is to have a common language.

    The same is true with punctuation. If I read a statement which says “the girl’s ball” I assume the ball belonged to one girl. If however the person meant to say “the girls’ ball”, thus meaning a group, this clearly changes my understanding of what’s being written.

    Also it’s worth noting that if you accept a pre-defined spelling variant is fine then this remains an argument for correct spelling, simply with a wider number of words to choose from.

    You are correct that the purpose of language is to allow two people to communicate in much the same way that the purpose of money is to allow people to trade. And just as it doesn’t matter what currency you use as long as you’re both happy so it could be with language.

    And if it were genuinely possible to construct language in such a way that spelling variants would never cause any problems then perhaps it would be fine. But it’s not – so the only simple way to do it is to have a common language that everyone follows.

    p.s. I hate text speak. Surely I’m not the only person that properly spells and punctuates them?

  5. IoC, I don’t accept that the only way for people to understand each other is to have a common language (at least, not ‘common language’ in the narrow sense where a word like “embarassed” is not allowed).

    what happens when one person uses a spelling or phrase that the other person is not familiar with? And given that it’s not always possible to know this when two people communicate the only way to ensure this happens without problems is to have a common language.

    As I pointed out in my post, who is to say which person is wrong in this scenario? Is it the person who commits the heinous crime of getting one letter wrong in a spelling, or is it the person who is too obtuse to put two and two together to work out what the word is? I know which one I think it is…

  6. I heard the chap interviewed the other evening and found the argument he put was intended (it appeared primarily) to save his own time.

    For me, context is all – even in examinations. I teach and assess law. In practice, imprecision of language can kill your case, and lead you to personal liability in negligence. Students need to be mindful of that. However, a student who texts a friend is unlikely to take the same care over his or her expression in that context.

    Personally, I do not actively penalise spelling or grammatical slips – simply because in my experience when the words matter the error will often change the meaning of a sentence or paragraph – and the student simply does not get the credit he or she may believe is deserved.

    On my own blog, there are various typos (including at least a couple in my post earlier tonight) – simply because I use my blog as a commonplace book primarily for myself and for the readership of some like-minded friends. I tend to leave things as first drafts and rarely edit posts (unless edits are acknowledged) because that is my intended audience. When I’m writing for publication everything is checked and checked again before I let anyone else even look at it.


  7. If “led” is spelled as “lead” as of course it is for the metal, it’s not just a misspelling; it’s getting the tense wrong as well.
    I have also seen numerous times “and” when the (adult) person meant “an” and “where” where “were” was meant – this is just a tin ear for the language and indicative of a lack of thought and of care.
    The last two (where/were) are examples of people pronouncing words as homonyms (compare also whether and weather) that others do not. [In each case I pronounce these words differently to each other.] The spelling difference here is important.
    Now take iron. Am I to spell it “iern” or even “ion” simply because that’s how the majority of people in the UK pronounce it? (The confusion when writing about iron ions would do my head in.)
    English orthography is peculiar eg:-
    sing –> sang (though tin-ears say sung)
    bring –> brought (though tin-ears say brung)
    Why can’t folk just deal with it?
    Take note of the spelling the first time you encounter a word and the problem vanishes.

  8. Jack — I notice, though, that in each of these instances (except maybe “ion ion”, though you seem to cope with this pronunciation easily enough) you know precisely what the writer means. Quite what anyone achieves by nit-picking like this is beyond me. What is the big problem with it? I might be tempted to say… “Why can’t folk just deal with it?”

  9. “in each of these instances ….. you know precisely what the writer means.”
    But I didn’t when I first read them, I had to spend time deciphering what was meant.
    Can we agree on handbag? That it should not be spelled hambag (the way most people pronounce it.)

  10. Speaking as someone who finds text speak indecipherable (and therefore uses full English sentences in text messages) and found (apart from the first one) the examples doctorvee gave as possible alternate spellings very difficult to slot into the intended meaning out of context, I would be against alternate spelling.

    It would make communication considerably more difficult for me, and likely for a fair number of other people. It is worth remembering that there are (at least) two people involved in each communication, and they may not agree on what constitutes a valid alternate spelling for a word. What if one person thinks “roade” is an acceptable alternative to “road” and the other can’t see the underlying logic (there invariably is one in alternate spellings)? Or worse, one thought it was the alternative for “road” and the other for “rode”? Or “rod”? Disagreements at that level can and would lead to a lot of confusion. At least with read and read, the tense of the sentence settles the matter.

    It’s not about who’s right (and doctorvee is correct in saying neither is wrong; the meanings given to spellings is arbitrary at the broadest level). It’s about whether the point is communicated. Without a common vocabulary and common representation of that vocabulary, communication falls apart.

    However, I will grant the majority either don’t care or would find alternate spellings preferable (alternate spellings came about before consistent ones largely to account for the alternate pronunications and systems people used for constructing their spoken language). Whatever problems there would be in introducing alternate spellings at a language level, alternate spellings between people who agree on what the particular spelling means are fine. Indeed, that’s how most languages in the world got their start – a subset of the users of a parent language deciding to use alternate spellings (or pronunciations for languages beginning before the advent of writing in the parent language) between themselves to communicate something in a way that seemed better to them in some way.

    Some spelling reforms would find favour with me (spelling all words purely phonetically, for instance). But such reforms would need to be consistent and alternate spellings leaves too much to the mass minds. Most of them may agree on a single set of alternate spellings. For the common ones the majority opinion will stand more or less unchallenged. Some groups may even be able to agree on all relevant alternates for themselves. But there would still be too much ambiguity and interpretation for it to work as a mass system.