Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Our medieval spelling is no larfing matter

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:00

The Independent titles don't exist, I was told last week. "Yes, really," an official from one of Britain's leading lobby groups informed me. "We've been sending emails to you and they just keep bouncing back." I don't need to repeat the famous words of Mark Twain to reassure you that we are very much alive and well! Sadly, it turns out that my correspondent is suffering from an affliction increasingly rife in the UK – the inability to spell some of the most common words in the language. Such as "independent".

Around half of British adults, according to a new survey, are unable to spell everyday words such as "embarrassed", "liaison" or "millennium". More than a quarter of us struggle with "definitely", "accidentally" and "separate". In the survey, 1,000 adults were asked to spell 10 common words – and every one was wrongly spelt by someone, including such a simple word as "friend". No doubt it would have been easier if our founders had chosen one of the other titles that were considered for the newspaper, such as "The Examiner" or "The Chronicle". As it is, we may have to live with increasing numbers of people who seem to believe "independent" is spelt with an "a".

Or do we? Last week I came across a man with a plan. John Gledhill, secretary of The Spelling Society, wants to reform the English spelling system so that words are written as they are pronounced. At the society's conference at Coventry University next weekend, speakers will argue that £18m is "wasted" annually teaching 15th-century spellings to 21st-century schoolchildren. This is based on a calculation that teaching spelling in primary schools costs £556 per teacher per year, based on the average salary of a primary-school teacher and the typical time spent teaching spelling.

"The Spanish and Italians, who write as they speak, are laughing at us," claims Dr Gledhill, who was behind the commissioning of the spelling survey. So what about "independent"? Is it "-ant" or "-ent"? "Etymologically," he tells me, "both are identical. It's just that different versions have sprung up over the centuries. You can have one or the other – not both."

Fair enough. But under Dr Gledhill's rules we'd surely end up with the "wrong" one. Which would be unlikely to please all you sticklers out there, who are never backward in pointing out the error of our ways. Here is reader David Stansfield, who writes from Limehouse, East London, to complain about our item last week on the illness of Senator Edward Kennedy: "According to United Nations statistics, the average life expectancy of an American man is 75.6 years. As Senator Kennedy was born in 1932, even if he died now, his life will have been of average length. How can this be consistent with your headline 'The Kennedy Curse Strikes Again'? Even the Kennedys have to die." Quite so, Mr Stansfield.

Message Board: Has cost made you cut down on going by car?

As the price of petrol goes through the roof, readers swapped tips on getting from A to B without driving:

Franky T

It takes me 20 minutes to drive 12 miles to work. Taking the bus will mean a four-fold increase in my journey. Even buses run on oil and fares will inevitably rocket at some point. Time to dust down the bike.


I have cut my car journeys – I shop locally, I work from home and I live close enough to my children's schools that we can walk to school. We've all spread out too much; we need to suck ourselves in a bit.


Stopped using a car many years ago. Have had a much better quality of life, much healthier and little stress. I think all of us will be far better off and healthier when car use is reduced.

Phil Quinton

I have been panicking about oil prices but I think a greater good will come of the pain. The world is never going to voluntarily go green in time to prevent total catastrophe. I look forward to the new technology.


I've made some lolly and have bought a Land Rover, which is useful for my business (farming and forestry) and is NOT an SUV, even though it looks like one – and guess what? I share it.


It will amaze generations to come that town-dwellers were regularly conveyed short distances in mechanised carriages, polluting the air while making themselves morbidly obese. Car pools are the answer.


The electrically assisted bike is worth a look for the aged with bad knees and too many hills! Unfortunately the quality is still uneven, and the latest batteries are very expensive.


I have always cycled and it is the best way to get around town. But for trips in the country, public transport has to be more extensive and affordable so that rural dwellers are not trapped in car use.

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