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Does spelling matter?

By Simon Horobin


“You can’t help respecting anybody who can spell TUESDAY, even if he doesn’t spell it right; but spelling isn’t everything. There are days when spelling Tuesday simply doesn’t count.”
– Rabbit of Owl in A.A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner, chapter 5

As part of his agenda to improve primary school education, Michael Gove plans to invest more teaching time in driving up standards of spelling; his proposals include a list of 162 words which all eleven-year old children will be expected to spell correctly. As his critics were quick to point out, Gove’s belief in the importance of accurate spelling was somewhat undermined by a number of misspellings in the White Paper itself; Tristram Hunt gleefully suggested that Gove, “of all people,” should be able to spell bureaucracy. This highlights one of the golden rules of orthography: before you criticise someone else’s spelling, be sure your own is up to scratch.

This clamp down on spelling standards raises a question which has been debated for centuries. Should we be investing so much school time in teaching children to acquire a spelling system which is bedevilled by idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies?  Wouldn’t it be simpler to reform English spelling to make it easier to learn? Calls for spelling reform have been voiced since the sixteenth century, although the proposers often had conflicting agendas. Where some reformers wished to restore a closer link between spelling and pronunciation, proposing phonetic spellings like niit “knight,” others sought to restore the link between spelling and etymology, introducing silent letters into doubt, scissors, language, thereby driving speech and writing further apart.

Rykneld School Spelling CertificateWhile spelling may pose many hurdles for unwary learners, it is by no means clear that it is the reason for comparatively low levels of literacy. Calls for reform today often draw on exaggerated and alarmist claims about the difficulties of English spelling, making unfounded links between English spelling and youth illiteracy and unemployment, and other social ills.   Claims that more transparent spelling systems have resulted in higher levels of literacy in countries like Finland and Spain, where there is a closer relationship between spelling and pronunciation, are based on intuition rather than evidence, and ignore the wide range of social and educational factors that inevitably impact upon early literacy.

The English Spelling Society continues to fly the flag for spelling reform today, lobbying for wholesale simplification of the system. In September 2008 its president, John Wells, proposed relaxing spelling rules, accepting variants such as thru and lite, and ceasing to distinguish between they’re, their and there. In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2008 David Cameron attacked Wells’s proposals, reformulating them as a direct assault upon educational standards:  “He’s the President of the Spelling Society. Well, he’s wrong. And by the way, that’s spelt with a ‘W’.”

There is, however, an important question that gets lost in the politicisation of this debate. Is it necessary to have a standard spelling system? Why do we all need to spell the same way?  It’s easy to imagine that a single spelling system is a necessity rather than a choice, but it is a comparatively recent phenomenon.  In the Middle Ages there were literally hundreds of spellings of common words like through, including drowgh, yhurght, trghug, trowffe.  By comparison, the proposed tolerance of thru seems positively mild.  The proposal to tolerate variant spellings is not new; Mark Twain expressed a disdain for people who were only capable of spelling a word one way, while H.G. Wells viewed unusual spellings as an expression of character and personality. George Bernard Shaw left money in his will to fund an entirely new, “Shavian,” alphabet to replace the current system, whose surplus letters led to the waste of so much time and money: “Shakespeare might have written two or three more plays in the time it took him to spell his name with eleven letters instead of seven.”

Proposals to tolerate spelling variation are not merely evidence of recent liberal attitudes and slipping standards; a similar proposition to that of John Wells was made in a letter to the Times Educational Supplement in 1960, in which the writer questioned the need for a common orthography, suggesting that variants such as sieze, seize and seeze should be deemed equally acceptable.  Who is responsible for these trendy, permissive suggestions? C.S. Lewis. Such a policy would also encourage a more phonetic system, since alternative spellings could accommodate the different accents spoken in Britain and throughout the world.  For instance, speakers of English differ in their pronunciation of words like car and card, depending on their accent.  For Scots, Irish and most North American speakers, who pronounce the r in such words, these are logical spellings.  But for southern English speakers, for whom the r is silent, it would make more sense to spell such words without it.

Standardised spelling is a development closely linked with the introduction of printing; it is the role of copyeditors and proofreaders to ensure that an author’s spelling conforms to the standard. The recent publication of the manuscripts of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens provoked outrage in the media at their poor spelling. But their relaxed attitude to spelling is entirely unremarkable, given that correct spelling was imposed during the printing process. While printing has led to the establishment of a standard spelling system, the private spelling practices of diaries, letters and journals have continued to show considerable diversity up to the present day. The role of publishing houses as the gatekeepers of the standard is coming under increasing pressure today, as private spellings are now diffused more widely via websites, blogs, tweets, emails and other forms of unmediated online communication. There is a tacit acceptance that variant spellings are acceptable in such contexts and consequently the grip of the standard has begun to be loosened. Definitions in the online Urban Dictionary often view such misspellings as superior to conventional spellings; Teusday is labelled an “alternate spelling for Tuesday that better people use.”  C.S. Lewis regularly used this spelling in his private letters; perhaps his extensive reading in medieval literature meant he was reviving an earlier form, or perhaps he agreed with Rabbit that there are some days when spelling Tuesday correctly just doesn’t matter.

Simon Horobin is Professor of English at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Magdalen College. His book, Does Spelling Matter?, examines the role of spelling today, considering why English spelling is so difficult to master, whether it should be reformed, and whether the electronic age signals the demise of correct spelling. He also writes a blog about English spelling.

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Image credit: Rykneld School Spelling Certificate by Lindosland (Own work), shared under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. peter mare

    Simon, Thank you for writing this piece. While you are right that it is hard to link low literacy rates (or PISA scores) to the phonemicity of a language, as there are so many factors that come into play, common sense would dictate otherwise. However, there is a little piece of information that can help settle the matter once and for all: there are 2 linguistic communities in Finland and they don’t perform in the same manner on the PISA test. In fact, the advantaged, upper-class Swedish-speaking Finns that you would expect SHOULD do better, perform much worse! Bear in mind that both communities benefit from the same system of education. As it turns out, Swedish is not as regular, as phonemic as Finnish is. Spelling does matter. An highly irregular system like English, if anything, DELAYS learning, reading, writing. In fact, it is so bad that many Commonwealth countries must spend a lot more money in education to mitigate (or obfuscate) the issue. If you don’t understand that a poor correspondence between letters and phonemes makes learning to read more difficult, then I might as well quit. Would you suggest that we make it worse? And by making it even more irregular, nothing would be changing? Now, the defendants of the status quo will point out that Canadian students do well on the PISA tests. They would be right. This can be explained again by the amount of resources that Canadians use to get there (.5% more compare to Finland). (Small differences until you realize that Finns start school at 7 and university is FREE). Anyhow, the English spelling system is so irregular that learners end up memorizing the bulk of words, which even Finns must do. Most mature readers do not decode methodically each phoneme. And, if they do, they do it much quicker, aided by all kinds of predictive strategies and shape of words as well. However, early learners don’t! They rely a lot on the spelling or phonemic system because they don’t know those nasty irregular sight words (the, an, a, are,…). They have a much tougher time predicting and using the context. THAT is crucial! Now, imagine an English reader interested in reading about dinosaurs! We all know how big those names can be. In Finnish, all of those words would be easily decodable the first time around, if one has memorized the phonemes of the Finnish system. In English, not so! In fact, modern literacy techniques tend to focus on memorizing all of those nasty irregular sight words because they usually carry little meaning and so are hard to guess. Now, imagine if the student wants to explore books that are written by professors. Finnish students, very early on, will be able to DECODE all of those words. Sure, they might not understand them all, but they will be able to accurately DECODE them and, next time, these students hear these more complicated words, guess what there is a good chance they will be remembered or be given a better meaning. This could not possibly happen to English-speaking kids. It is very likely that the kid will make “errors” in decoding, decoding words “incorrectly”. When they will hear those words at a later time, say, a lot of them will not be recognized. They will have to wait until someone reads them to them. This is why there is so much emphasis on parents reading to their kids, for instance. This is why there is so much emphasis on guided reading activities. The point is that all these irregularities do NOT prevent most learners to learn English, but –ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL– it delays learning. So, either you accept the idea that your taxes will remain high (allowing education budgets to remain high and literacy levels to remain high) or you don’t and then it is desirable to change the spelling system. To be honest, Simon, it’s been 400 years since anyone has SERIOUSLY and COMPETENTLY reformed it or standardised it. BTW, the FINNS did it in the 1950’s, which coincide strangely with their students doing much better a decade or two after on those PISA tests! Coincidence again? I don’t think so. Do you know anything that has not changed in 400 years? Why not do the right thing and make learning this beautiful language less of a challenge, MAKE IT MUCH QUICKER? Reading should be fun. Is it now?

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