Its national survey of 1,000 people aged from 16 to 65-plus found that pensioners were significantly better at the verbal spelling of 10 frequently misspelt words - shown on the table right - than those people who had recently left school or university. Among those aged over 65, 20 per cent spelt seven or more of the words correctly while, for those aged between 16 and 24, the figure was just 8 per cent.
The vast gap in spelling ability that has opened up in the past 50 years was also shown by the number of people able only to answer three or fewer correctly: among pensioners the figure was 28 per cent, but among those aged 16 to 24 it was 58 per cent.
Perhaps more remarkable was, despite the imminence of the once-in-a-thousand years event, just 14 per cent could spell "millennium" correctly. It was the most commonly misspelt word among those aged over 45. By contrast, younger people had more trouble spelling "pronunciation".
Catherine Soanes, of Oxford English Dictionaries, admitted she was "extremely surprised" by the results. "Young people particularly are getting extremely high exposure through the media to the `M' word - and yet this is not reflected in their ability to spell it," she said.
Among all age groups, however, verbal spelling was a weak point - the most common number of correctly spelt words was just two out of 10.
Almost one in five people pleaded that they "didn't know" how to spell when contacted by the researchers.
Another unexpected finding was that spelling ability improves little after the age of 16. "This suggests that spelling is best learnt at school," Ms Soanes said. "More traditional, mainstream words, such as `surprise' were, on the whole, properly spelt."
The findings emerge at a time when sales of dictionaries have actually risen for the first time in some years, while the Government has instituted a "literacy hour" for all children in primary school to raise standards of reading and writing.
David Swarbrick, the marketing director of Oxford English Dictionaries, said: "How people spell is probably a lot to do with society rather than the sales of dictionaries; the sales tend to follow the strength of the economy.
"There is a sense, though, that the rise of e-mail, which is a casual way of communicating, means that people will admit mistakes in spelling that they would not have done with a formal letter. Maybe standards are slipping, or maybe younger people find it more acceptable to be relaxed about how language is used."
But, Mr Swarbrick pointed out, varying spellings are nothing new: "Every known example of Shakespeare's signature is spelt differently."
WHICH IS CORRECT?
The 10 most commonly misspelt words
1 To house is to -
2 A cataclysmic event is -
3 Something amusing is -
4 A period of 1,000 years is a a milenium
5 Somebody naughty is -
6 Being a peer is a -
7 A word's sound is its -
8 To pull apart is to -
9 An unexpected event is a -
10 UFOs are often termed -
Answers: 1a, 2b, 3c, 4c, 5b, 6c, 7b, 8a, 9c, 10cReuse content