Most Britons are not good spellers — and the younger they are, the more mistakes they make. That’s because so many of today’s children do not have the basic groundings for writing good English —or speaking it, for that matter.
The vast majority of youngsters seldom read newspapers, magazines or books and when they write the language it’s to text their friends with truncated words that are written as they are pronounced. So ‘you’ becomes ‘u’ and ‘for’ is ‘4’.
These shortcuts save time (and sometimes money) and they also help to explain why spelling in Britain is worse than it has ever been since the start of the 20th century. A survey in England showed that more than half of the 2,000 participants admitted they had trouble with words in everyday use. Without the spellcheck on their computers, they added, their e-mails would be packed with whopping errors. A list of 50 common words Britons have difficulties with included common ones such as ‘friend’ and ‘queue’. With friend there’s a tendency to write ‘ei’ instead of ‘ie’ and the double ‘u’ in queue is even more of a problem.
Many of those taking part in the survey admitted there were dozens of spellings they considered tricky. Among them were ‘embarrassed’ (the double ‘s’ and ‘r’ cause doubts) and ‘accommodate’ (many people omit a ‘c’ or an ‘m’. An incredible number of people don’t know the difference between ‘license’ (the verb) and ‘licence’ (the noun) — and the Americans’ perverted use of the language and their intent on being as different from the colonial power as possible, mean they write the noun with an ‘s’ and the verb with a ‘c’. Old Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, has a lot to answer for. Other words that get many people in a spelling fluster are ‘fluorescent’, ‘psychiatrist’, ‘necessary’ (double ‘c’ or double ’s’?) and ‘occasionally’ (more problems with the ‘c’ and the ’s’).
There’s nothing new about bad spellers: they have existed ever since people started to put words down in writing. When Dr Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, he was not only defining words but also trying to standardise spelling.
Every English writer in those days used phonetic spelling, so the way a word was written depended very much on the writer’s accent: the words of those in the south had spellings that were quite different from those who were born in the north. But even within that limited framework, writers weren’t consistent and each had several ways of spelling the same word. In Shakespeare’s time there was no codification and his spellings had many variations. He even had at least half a dozen ways of spelling his own name. And Shakespeare wasn’t one of them.
It’s not only the young who have problems when writing down words: bad spelling is so rife among the middle-aged and elderly that is is overlooked at pub quizzes. An answer with an incorrect spelling still wins a point — unless the quizmaster is asking for the spelling of one of those tricky words such as ‘accommodation’. A writer’s search on internet showed that accommodation was the third most incorrectly spelt word. At the top of the list was ‘minuscule’ (most people write miniscule) and in second position was ‘supersede’ (most of us write supercede). The other 10 most commonly misspelt words (with the incorrect spelling in brackets) were: ecstasy (ecstacy), embarrass (embarass), receive (recieve), desiccate (desicate), definitely (definately), pronunciation (pronounciation) and separate (seperate).
I am one of the better spellers thanks to Miss Hosie, my primary school teacher. Miss Hosie was a serious but pleasant Scotswoman, always soberly but impeccably dressed. You felt relaxed in her classroom but didn’t dare go over the top in any way. She never put up with any kind of nonsense.
She was a real old-fashioned school marm even more than 70 years ago and was truly serious about spelling. She devoted a great deal of class time to it, giving us daily homework and weekly tests.
She taught us little mnemonics to help us remember the spelling of tricky words. She told us that to spell separate “you have to se…pa…rate your lips”. By doing that you get ‘pa’ instead of ‘pe’, thereby spelling the word correctly.
Even today, decades later, I never type separate without silently telling myself “I must se..pa..rate my lips”. Miss Hosie sure drummed those memory triggers into us. I have always been most grateful for that.
From what I have been able to observe, teachers like Miss Hosie no longer exist and spelling standards have fallen drastically in Britain and are getting worse. Some people have difficulty with ‘rain’, rein’ and ‘reign’ and for many ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ are interchangeable.
Words that are relatively easy to spell but sound like other words always cause problems. Can you correctly use ‘diffuse’ and ‘defuse’? Surveys have shown that 50 per cent of those using one of these words choose the wrong one.
Two other words that sound the same but have completely different meanings are ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’. Which one means writing paper and which signifies that someone or something is not moving? Miss Hosie’s pupils never had any problems with words like that.
Some people who use the written word in their jobs are terrible spellers and more than a few of them, even among those with university degrees, are weak on basic writing skills and have great difficulty in writing down what they actually want to say. The best writers can be atrocious spellers. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with memorable novels like The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night among his achievements, was such a bad speller that reading his unedited texts (in letters, for instance) is almost embarrassing.
Keats, who didn’t have much of a formal education, made four spelling mistakes in the first 10 lines of his manuscript of Ode to Autumn.
Another notoriously bad speller was Ernest Hemingway, famous for his simple laconic style. His howlers include ‘archiolgist’ and ‘profe0ssessional’. And he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, it was for his narrative skills shown in The Old Man and the Sea, not for his spelling.
William Faulkner, one of the most obscure and impenetrable writers of the 20th century, said of Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
Hemingway later retorted: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the words I use.”
I have read everything Hemingway published before his death but I only managed to get through one of Faulkner’s novels (his last one, called The Reivers) and two of his short stories. I have started to read Sanctuary (Faulkner’s most popular novel) on seven occasions and I have never been able to get more than half way through it.
I prefer those better and simpler words Hemingway used. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t have a Miss Hosie to teach him how to spell.