Leading Article: A spelling lesson for undergraduates: our words are our bond

Share
Related Topics
Number 14 down in yesterday's crossword was "prophesy for heretic with ecstasy" (13). Solve it, and then try to say correct spelling does not matter. It's not "ecstasy" that is the test. Getting its three tricky consonants right is not ultimately a matter of life and death. Ecstasy is only the current settled spelling of a word that has historically bounced around. If all those who ingest the fashionable drug were to decide to spell it once again with an "x", doubtless in time the convention would change and nobody would be the worse for it. One of the delights of English is its malleability. "Prophesy" however is different matter. For a start, the crossword clue does not work unless you know that prophesy is a verb - "prophecy" (the noun) would have given a different solution. Here is a prime instance where conservatism is the friend of precision, where linguistic laxity leads to loss of meaning. And to those who failed to complete the crossword, the answer is the verb "prognosticate".

Unlike the Germans, who have precipitated a constitutional crisis over spelling reforms, or the French, to whom neologism is like alien invasion, we in Britain take these things informally. Even the recent proposal by John Honey to set up a committee of sages to oversee changes in language use sounds authoritarian. That suspicion of top-down cultural ordinances is healthy. But freedom of speech is not the same as orthographic anarchy. New evidence that the nation's ostensibly best and brightest undergraduates cannot spell is alarming.

Bernard Richards, formerly of Brasenose College, has written a piece for Oxford Magazine comparing the spelling of Eng Lit students over the past decade. It is not a rigorous study; he cannot tell, for example, whether the poor performance of his former students in their first-year exams reflects how they were when they did their A-levels, or shows the baleful influence of 12 months' dreaming 'neath those spires. However, it is a study which chimes. Young people often write to The Independent, for jobs, work experience placements, advice - all of which we are happy to supply up to the limits of our ability. But when they write to "The Independant", which a depressingly large number do, our patience wears thin.

Good spelling is a badge of attentiveness. Young people who write job applications spattered with misspellings are undermining their prospects, not because they fail to convey their attributes and aspirations (clearly most misspellings nevertheless convey their meaning); no, they damage their prospects because the employer reads the letter and concludes that this applicant does not think it matters to take care about getting things right. And their conclusion is correct. When Ruud Gullit said Chelsea played "sloppily" at Everton on Saturday, the expression of his disappointment was precise: his players did not concentrate, did not commit. So with sloppy spellers. How many Blues fans would write to their player-manager without according him the respect of spelling his name right? Bad spellers betray an unattractive quality of absence of mind ... that's absence, not abcence or abscence, as the young Oxonians apparently write. Of course, if a young literary type were to write absinthe of mind, we would applaud their inventiveness - realising that the play on words only works if it is built on a platform of consensus. Bad spellers are saying to their readers they do not care enough to get it right.

At one time that attitude was greeted as evidence of free spirit, potential creativity. Why bother about the rules as long as expression flows free - wi butha abat thu rools at awl? But the rules are not a straitjacket (not straightjacket, says the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors). Regularity in spelling is the basis of effective communication. Only if we possess language mutually are we guaranteed the knowledge of what someone is on about. Just as there is no one to epater without a bourgeoisie, so without a common language there can be no perception of originality.We need to know that accommodation has two cs and two ms, not because we couldn't otherwise recognise a des res, but because spelling it that way guarantees that we all know what the discourse is about and so can register changes in use and definition.

Of course all change is not decline. "Dumbing down" is an attractive thesis for older folk and has been since the beginning of time. Yet during the past three decades large mistakes do appear to have been made in teaching practice, and in examination procedure. For Oxford dons to have allowed Eng Lit students to proceed with such egregiously bad spelling says something uncomplimentary about their devotion to duty. That is uncomplimentary, not uncomplementary - the difference is worth preserving.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - West Midlands - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - Yorkshire & Humber - OTE £35,000

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Area Manager is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Embedded Linux Engineer - C / C++

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A well funded smart home compan...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Software Engineer - Python / Node / C / Go

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: *Flexible working in a relaxed ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress – arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?