Popping Out For A Spell

Reading & Writing

Writing is a craft first and an art second.

It happens every few years; someone suggests we abandon correct spelling in schools to ‘liberate’ children from rules and level the literacy playing field. This month, in a clickbait story designed to have Daily Telegraph readers clutching their pearls, universities have been talking about abandoning correct spelling again.

Hull University has said it will challenge the status quo by dropping the requirement for a high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English in ‘certain subjects’, a requirement it described as white, male and elite.

The university said that it would instead ‘encourage students to develop a more authentic academic voice that can communicate complex ideas with rigour and integrity — that celebrates, rather than obscures their particular background or characteristics’, and that spelling guidelines ‘should be seen within the context of blended learning and our ongoing work to narrow/close awarding gaps’, whatever that means.

Spelling has always fluctuated but some fundamental rules need to be observed in order to present ideas clearly. There are plenty of bloggers who seem unable to construct simple clear sentences. If you’re going to communicate through the written word, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the right tools at hand. Writing is a craft first and an art second.

You could argue that English’s messy spelling came its geography. The Latin alphabet was utilised to translate a Germanic language; then the Normans brought French spelling customs into the elite so that ordinary Britons found themselves unable to speak their own language. As spelling norms were still settling, the English vowel system underwent the Great Vowel Shift, a series of changes in pronunciation that took place mainly between 1400 and 1700. Transcription errors muddied things further.

Why did I spend five years studying Latin at school? Well, etymology allows us to understand old words and create new ones. Correct (ie traditional) spelling reveals important information. Early English writers put a ‘p’ into ‘receipt’ to make clear its connection to Latin’s ‘receptus’, even though the letter was silent. The p’ also connects the word to ‘receptive’ and ‘recipient’, which ‘reseet’ couldn’t do.

Do we need both ‘furrow’ and ‘furrough’? Hull University sees these anomalies as stumbling blocks; Many of us see them as signposts. Do the more literate forge ahead or wait for the less literate to catch up? 

One of the reasons why illogical spelling systems never get overhauled in more liberal societies is that those in a position to change the rules have long ago learned the old ones. It leaves the less literate stranded and a great swathe of people in the middle, muddling through with ad hoc spelling. Spell check has not really helped much here; it straightens thought into clear-cut channels and achieves something of what George Orwell warned us about.

So the idea is a political one, but unfortunately goes against the grain of human nature, which is to refine through experience. Until its fourth draft, my (eventually) upcoming fantastical-historical novel used insanely baroque language to condition the mind to its peculiar subject. I remembered the trouble my pal Jake Arnott had with ‘The Fatal Tree’, which he chose to write in thieves’ cant, and decided to remove much of the colourful language. The elaborate prose was my conceit, but would have driven many readers away.

Not you lot, obviously.

Even so, in its simplified version it still has twenty times the vocabulary of an Agatha Christie novel, not that I’m knocking her writing – it’s clean and clear-cut and packed with forward-motion verbs, even though she’s obsessed with judging people by the way they look and describing rooms in terms of egress.

But obscurity for its own sake is damaging. Even so, I’ll opt for ‘chasuble’ or ‘rededos’ because it has flavour and you still get a general understanding of the meaning. The answer is to let language do what it always does; be adapted by the more adventurous, and let those who are learning – especially from a second language – master the rules in the simplest, clearest way.

At the top please see Nigel Molesworth’s guide to Latin. I wonder if that’s where JK Rowling got the idea from.




23 comments on “Popping Out For A Spell”

  1. tony+williams says:

    Sensible approach. When I saw this (and I live in Boston, not a city given to ‘interesting’ approaches to spelling, I was surprised. I spend much time writing biomedical protocols, in English, for an audience of doctors and study coordinators. Many have English as a second language so the protocols (and the informed consent forms) have to be clear and precise. Or experiential therapies get given incorrectly. It might be ok to be creative in terms of spelling and grammar but patients will not really get the creativity if they get a toxic dose, or a procedure carried out and the wrong time and incorrectly. I also guess that writing code probably doesn’t have a lot of latitude for joyous creativity.

  2. Theophylact says:

    On the other hand, James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time has no fewer than three versions of English, all appropriate to the 14th Century — and it’s an absolute marvel. But it does put off some readers.

  3. Peter+T says:

    Is the written language merely a crude phonetic code for the spoken? If it is, spelling is important only as much as consistency is required. However, if it is more, which I would assert to be the case, then all the subtle complexity of formally correct spelling and grammar are essential.

    In what subjects does Hull consider technical proficiency in English unnecessary? Hopefully, they are literature, history and modern languages. Science and mathematics demand precision.

  4. Jonah says:

    To misquote Dorothy Parker, What fresh Hull is this?

  5. Jonah says:

    Better yet, The road to Hull is paved with good intentions.

  6. Brian says:

    Jonah, let’s not forget the advice given by Sartre; “Hull is other people.”

  7. Brian+Evans says:

    I’ve been to Hull and back.

  8. Peter+T says:


    A fool’s paradise is a wise man’s Hull with all its plusness.

  9. Liz+Thompson says:

    I worked for 25 years in what was then DHSS/Benefits Agency. I have seen more misspelt words in communications, both from and to the public, than I could possibly recall. What I do recall, is that I understood every one of them. And I’m a trained proof reader, so I do notice errors wherever they occur. There are a lot of novels written in dialect or representing non standard accents, and we still cope with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and James Joyce. Whilst I agree that scientific and medical texts may well need accurate spelling to ensure mistakes are not subsequently made, I am not completely convinced that students’ spelling is all that important, compared to the content, ideas, and knowledge displayed. The old joke about doctors’ handwriting, which is entirely accurate in my experience, never seemed to lead to unfortunate pharmacy errors. A personal anecdote. My daughter is dyslexic, so I proof read every one of her university essays both at BA and MA level. Her lecturer told her she was the only student he ever came across to spell Uttar Pradesh correctly. All students relying on spellcheck submitted it as Utter Pradesh.

  10. Peter+Dixon says:

    Oooh this hurts! There is a massive difference between the spoken word and its attendant situation eg. performance, discussion and conversation, and the written word. All languages have written words to describe things – if you use words wrongly or misspell them then you are demonstrating a laziness that obscures clarity. If a word exists to describe something then it has a history to explain itself; I recently saw a sign in a charity shop that said: ‘Chesterdraws £35’. Given that it was attached to a chest of drawers I had some inkling of what was being offered for sale. Likewise a grocer’s stall advertised ‘brokkerly’ which, being green and resembling small trees, I understood to be a vegetable with a high nutritive iron content. Some years ago a friend showed me his university dissertation where he constantly referred to chocolate manufacturer ‘Cadberry’s’ instead of ‘Cadbury’s’ – his tutor did not correct him. The job of a tutor or examiner is not to be a translator vainly trying to decode a lazy piece of writing – if you can’t produce English in an essay or dissertation, or be bothered to re-read and edit then you shouldn’t have been allowed on the course in the first place. The difference between the words ‘unclear’ and ‘nuclear’ can make a huge difference in the wrong hands – I draw attention to George Bush and the plural of ‘potato’ as an example.

  11. Cornelia+Appleyard says:

    From Hull University’s website – the library section.

    ‘The English language can have variations in spelling from American English. However, since you are studying in a UK higher education institution, it is important that you follow the English versions of spellings.’

    Am I allowed to consider the idea that correct spelling is a male thing mysogynistic?

  12. Roger says:

    “From Hull and Halifax and Hell, Good Lord deliver me.”
    I don’t know what the academic standards at the Universities of Halifax and Hell are like, though.

    A couple of years ago the University of Hull’s Registrar and Secretary, Jeanette Strachan, suspended recruitment for philosophy and all modern languages but Chinese, saying: “Our priority is for all our students to have a high quality academic experience and ensure that their qualification holds value over time.
    “We regularly review our portfolio and will continue to do so to ensure a sustainable and high quality university that meets the needs of our students, research and business partners.”
    An interesting … philosophical, shall we say?… outlook, expressed in revealing – but not very interesting, except psychologically – language.

    Personally, I love complicated and colourful language. My favourite writers include Sir Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Urquhart and Thomas Nashe.

  13. Helen+Martin says:

    If your chasuble is Dr. Chasuble you’d best not change the word. I have my Mother’s elementary school reader (Alexandra Reader Book V, I think) intended for 11 and twelve year olds, in use on the bald headed prairie of her day and I wouldn’t dream of handing it to students of that age today. They couldn’t handle the vocabulary, although I don’t mind the fact that the English cultural references would bemuse them.
    We went through a time of creative spelling here but the idea was for beginning writers to be able to put their ideas down without have to stumble through spelling. It meant they could use their oral language rather than just what they’d been taught to spell. Through second/third grade they were expected to shift to “standard” spelling. I believe that the idea came up from New Zealand. It certainly had some value.
    As a person in love with words I can’t help but agree with Chris and the way a knowledge of spelling helps with analysis, but we can be led astray by parallel developments and adoptions from non-latinate languages. In any event, simplified spelling would mean children unable to read their Mother’s letters which would complete the process begun with dropping cursive writing. I will not print on a board for twelve year olds. Lack of big words and hand writing could keep you out of university but what is a university for?

  14. Jonah says:

    Hull University claims a “high level of technical proficiency in written and spoken English” is “white, male and elite”. To quote RuPaul, “Why does it always have to be white?” Are other standardized languages accused of being elitist, male and reflecting a prevailing pigmentation?
    Other language questions: Why is a comedy-drama called a dramedy and not a comma? Shouldn’t there be more gender-specific pronouns, not fewer, for clearer communication? P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster often adds an explanation when getting befuddled with pronouns. For example, “She said it sounded as if Jeeves must be something like her father—she had never met him—Jeeves, I mean, not her father, whom of course she had met frequently”.
    If Winston Churchill had foreseen what Hull University is planning, would he have said, “If you’re going through Hull, keep going”.

  15. Peter+T says:

    I apologise to everyone for messing up the page. I was taking a gentle side swipe at the plus signs that have appeared in our names. It’s the second time I’ve slipped up here. Last occasion, I used angle brackets and the loaded text turned red. Will a third lead to a red card?

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    Not to worry, Peter. I at least saw what you did.

  17. Keith says:

    I love the playfulness of the English language. The translated Lolita by Nabokov is a joy to read, Ulysses too, although that became tiresome after awhile. I love Kerouac’s works and Dylan’s Tarantula is barking but oh so much fun. It’s always good to have a dictionary by the hand too. It was Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time omnibus that sprung me onto a tangential course of English writing, and I love to read anyone who writes well in English you can taste. Jerek and his Amelia are Moorcock creations I will never forget. Jereks train of red and gold puffing across the sky, the thousand-foot Victorian tea stalls. Inspector Springer paddling in the Paleozoic. A surreal love story as charming and whimsical as Peake. The Bryant and May novels are wonderfully written and bringing them to life as you do has sparked movies in my head. Long may they be read. Ps. just finished Paperboy- a superb evocation of childhood. I guess we’ve all been there, thanks for taking us back.

  18. peter says:

    at day release college i was asked to spell manoeuvre i of course made a hopeless mess of it with my secondary modern education but 45 years on it is still burned into my brain you sometimes have to fail to learn English is a funny and unique language lets keep it that way

  19. Derek says:

    Imagine what Larkin would have said. I think it may have involved some swearing.

  20. Paul+C says:

    Keith – do you think Dylan was a worthy Nobel laureate ? I’ve never met anyone who thinks so. Also, didn’t Nabokov write Lolita in English ? Any experts out there ?

  21. Stu Segal says:

    Actually, I’m for doing away with English altogether — perhaps in favor of Esperanto. Fewer irregular verbs, to begin with. And clearly it has fallen into disuse with the advent of texting, so let’s just get rid of it or simply banish it to academic departments.

  22. Keith says:

    Hi Paul,
    Well Leonard Cohen said giving the Nobel to Bob Dylan was like ‘pinning a medal on Everest’ and after winning it himself Kazuo Ishiguro commented: “Bob Dylan was my creative hero when I was growing up, when he won the Nobel, I was ecstatic. It’s an added thrill that I follow directly in his footsteps.”
    I’ve listened to Dylan for most of my life so yes, I think he was a worthy winner.
    As for Lolita, it was originally written in English and first published in Paris in 1955 by Olympia Press. Later it was translated into Russian by Nabokov himself.

  23. I think you have to have a decent knowledge of correct spelling to understand badly spelled words. And I don’t imagine those Laos see-faire teachers would be thrilled if their names were spelled phonetically. Especially if their students don’t know how to pronounce them. Just a thought (or two.)

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