A lecturer at the Hay Literary Festival shocked his audience as he called on the “grammar police” to relax over misspellings and the incorrect use of apostrophes.
Simon Horobin, a professor of English at Magdalen College, Oxford, prompted an audible gasp from the crowd as he suggested that the spellings of “they’re”, “their” and “there” could be standardised, and insisted that “spelling is not a reliable indication of intelligence”.
The academic, who wrote the book Does Spelling Matter?, said standard spellings were a comparatively recent phenomenon, with hundreds of different spellings for words such as “through” in the Middle Ages. He said: “People like to artificially constrain language change. For some reason we think spelling should be entirely fixed and never changed. I am not saying we should just spell freely. But sometimes we have to accept spellings change.”
Prof Horobin called on George Bernard Shaw for support as he asked: “Is the apostrophe so crucial to the preservation of our society?” The Irish playwright argued that the apostrophe was redundant, saying there was not “the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli”. Prof Horobin has a high-profile ally in Stephen Fry, who called the grammar police “semi-educated losers” in 2011. But vehemently in opposition is Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, who said that people who mixed up “its” and “it’s” deserved “to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave”.
The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, recently proposed a new English curriculum which included 162 words every child should know how to spell. A group of academics attacked the move as “dumbing down” teaching. But the group was, in turn, criticised in the Idler Academy Bad Grammar awards for its poorly written letter to Mr Gove.
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