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Why Spelling is Important

 

When I started lecturing at University I was surprised to find that spelling and grammar was not to be a factor in marking as long as the essay/exam was understandable.  I imagine it would have been different if I had been teaching an English class but my area of expertise is child development and I was lecturing in the Education Department. I still shudder to think of the variety of written English been taught by some of my ex-students!

Of course English writing, and therefore spelling, is based on the Roman alphabet which dates back to the 600’s and was developed for a language which is phonologically very different to English.  To overcome this digraphs – sh, th, ch, and gh were created to represent sounds not readily available in the existing alphabet, which made for some interesting spelling, for example enough and high

Generally though, in the Middle Ages, writers spelt words phonetically.  The problem with this was that, with all the regional dialects in the UK at the time, there was no consistency in the pronunciation of words.  Night, for example, had more than 60 different spellings. including nyght and nicht.  Drowgh and trghug, among other variations, were both acceptable ways to spell through; and cloudy could be rendered clowdie, clowdy, or clowdye, just to mention a few.

For hundreds of years writers gaily went their own myriad ways, with spelling, punctuation and grammar being matters of individual preference.  Then came the advent of the printing press in 1452, which made the written word more accessible to the common man.  Before then books were laboriously copied out by hand, often by monks, and were only available to those in the upper echelons of society who could afford them.

With the printing press, of necessity, spelling became more uniform.  This made reading and interpreting the writers’ ideas a whole lot easier.  Whereas before the same phrase could be written “Trghug the clowdye nicht”, or “Drowgh the clowdy nyght”, or even  “Yhurght the clowdie nihte”,  the use of the printing press ensured that at least some effort was made to come to an agreement about the spelling of most common words.  This doesn’t imply that writers immediately began expressing themselves in standardised English.  In fact, most letters, diaries and other handwritten documents continued to display a very varied choice of spelling. Nor does it imply that the most logical forms of words were chosen as the standard for spelling. To try to bring some order into the system reformers in the 16th century tried using the etymology of a word to determine its spelling.  For example the word double originated from the French doble.  Sometimes this worked, but just as often it didn’t.

To add to the confusion there were considerable changes in spoken English around about the 15th and 16th centuries. However, the now fairly standardized written form of the language remained much the same.

And then, just when we thought we had it all worked out, in the early 17th century Britain started to colonize America and it all fell apart again.  Today the differences in British and American spelling seem to revolve around the KISS principle.  Whereas British English steadfastly retains most of the quirks of centuries of spelling traditions, the Americans seem determined to keep it all as simple as possible.  So, for example, they dropped the redundant ‘u’ –  colour became color, neighbour became neighbor, behaviour became behavior. And they dropped the extra ‘l’s’ – cancelled became canceled and modelling became modeling, except where the British version of a word has one ‘l’, whereupon, presumably to be contrary, they added one – so wilful became willful Then they turned ‘s’ into ‘z’ (and, to add insult to injury started calling it zee instead of zed).

But we adjusted, dividing English spelling into two camps in the northern hemisphere  – American and British – with Canadian spelling hovering uncomfortably between the two. And again a reasonable compromise seemed to have been reached, until social media appeared and suddenly any gains made over the past fifteen centuries fell by the wayside.  With auto-correct barely keeping our online correspondence coherent, abbreviations, hashtags and  other examples of ‘text-speak’ are the order of the day.

So what do we do? Revert to the idiosyncratic, individualized spelling and grammar of the middle ages? And, in view of its shady past, is spelling that important anyway?

Surprisingly it is.  Firstly misspelt words do affect textual communication, they can drastically change the meaning of a sentence and make it almost impossible to read, however versed in textese one may be and, secondly, while this might come as a surprise to some, sending out a resume full of spelling and grammar errors is still almost certain to put you out of the running for your dream job.  Rightly or wrongly glaring mistakes tend to make you appear less intelligent than you may be.

Still not convinced? According to a 2009 study done by Harris Interactive for CareerBuilder.com 45 percent of employers interviewed used social networks to screen applicants; and of the 35 percent who decided not to offer a job based on the applicants’ social media content, 29 percent did so because of poor online communication skills. https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/20/more-employers-use-social-networks-to-check-out-applicants/

February 21, 2018 - Posted by | Language

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