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

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The Independent Online
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.