A survey of spelling and punctuation among 980 people aged between 16 and 60, published yesterday, reveals that nearly half of adults cannot spell common words.
Accommodation proved to be the most difficult word in the survey, conducted by the Adult and Basic Skills Agency: 68 per cent spelt it wrongly. Next came occasionally (55 per cent), immediately (45 per cent) and necessary and maintenance (43 per cent).
The young (aged 16-24) were the worst spellers, strongly suggesting that standards have fallen. However, the oldest group, aged 55-60, were not much better. They had more difficulty than the young with easy words such as because and complain.
The best spellers are in their thirties and forties, many of whom were at primary school in the Sixties and Seventies, when much-criticised "trendy" teaching methods were prevalent.
Graduates are better spellers, but a third of them spelt occasionally wrongly and 11 and 12 per cent respectively failed to spell sincerely and necessary correctly.
Overall, 11 per cent could not spell writing and 13 per cent of 16-24- year-olds could do little more than fill in their name and address on a form. Women are better spellers than men.
Alan Wells, the agency's director, said: "Many employers automatically reject applications for jobs if people spell incorrectly on the application form and can't use the right punctuation.
"We tend to think that education has been improving but in terms of these very basic skills I don't think this is the case."
He urged a return to old-fashioned "spelling-bees" and words learned by rote.
Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "You only learn to spell by reading a lot. Children are reading less because they watch so much television and have televisions in their bedrooms.
"Spelling-bees may help some people but not most. Any teacher knows that you can prevent a child ever learning to spell by using the spelling exercise approach."
One in four people had a poor grasp of punctuation. The use of the apostrophe was a particular problem. This group also tried to punctuate passages by "a random scattering of commas".
Those with no educational qualifications did more than twice as badly in the punctuation exercises as those with five or more good GCSEs.
t Employers say the fact that more 16-year-olds are getting higher grades in maths and English GCSE does not mean that they can write intelligibly or are numerate enough to cope with work.
A survey of 50 employers, carried out by the employers' organisation, Industry in Education, shows that employers believe too many teenagers lack initiative, determination and self-discipline.
They want schools to concentrate less on exam success and more on developing personal qualities. The employers challenge the Prime Minister's view that sport promotes teamwork. The time would be better spent in practical education about the world of work.
The words we find most difficult