Read an Excerpt
You and the Problem of Spelling
The one thing demanded of those who have had educational advantages is that they be able to spell. in your daily work or in social situations you may not need to be able to add a column of figures. Few people will care. Not often will you be thought stupid if you don't know the dates of historical events-say, the Battle of Waterloo. Your knowledge of economics can be nil. You may not know the difference between an oboe and an ibis, an atom and a molecule. But if you can't spell, you're in trouble. Rightly or wrongly, fairly or unfairly, misspelling is the most frequently accepted sign of illiteracy.
Why is this? You can argue that the ability to think clearly is far more important than spelling. So are clear expression of thoughts, an attractive personality, and demonstrated ability in one's job. The fact remains that incorrect spelling is heavily penalized in our society-so heavily that it keeps people from getting jobs they want or prevents them from moving up to better positions. Inability to spell gives people complexes just as much as unsureness about grammar or proper methods of dress and social behavior.
Why Correct Spelling Is Important
Job opportunities are missed and employees are often let go because of spelling deficiencies. Even business enterprises can suffer because of their inability to meet commonly accepted spelling practices. In an eastern city a store was opened for the sale of Army surplus goods: canteens, combat boots, pup tents, plastic boxes, and various other items. Over the door was a sign that said COME IN AND BROUSE AROUND. One daysomebody told the owner that BROUSE was a misspelling. So he had it painted this way: COME IN AND BROWZE AROUND. Another customer complained and the owner got another repainting: COME IN AND BROWS AROUND. There must have been more complaints, because a few days later a new sign appeared that read: COME IN AND BROUSE, BROWZE OR BROWS AROUND-BUT COME IN. A month or so later, the owner tacked up another sign over that one. It read: GOING OUT OF BIZNESS.
The main reason for reliance on spelling as an index of intelligence and literacy is that correct spelling is the one fixed and certain thing about our language. The overwhelming majority of English words are spelled in only one way; all other ways are wrong. The accepted system is accepted. It is the system in which our business communications, our magazines, our newspapers, and our books have been written for generations.
The uniformity applies to no other aspect of our language. You can vary your choice of words as much as you please. You can write sentences which are long or short and punctuate them in various ways. In most circles you can split an infinitive or use a double negative and not be penalized. But you can spell a word in only one correct way. In a rapidly changing world this substantial uniformity is understandably attractive to many people, particularly to those who are good spellers.
Even where alternative spellings are possible, only one will be thought correct for a given piece of writing. For example, both telephone and phone are commonly used, the latter a colloquial form of telephone. Your employer may insist on telephone, and that full spelling will then be the right one. Both theater and theatre are correct spellings, but you would probably use the former in the United States and the latter in England.
One might argue logically that many wrong spellings are "better" than the right ones since they "show" the word more clearly. Wensday more clearly reveals the sound of the word than does Wednesday, But logic and common sense Will not help; in Old English Wodnes daeg was the day of the god Woden, and the d has remained. Spelling is frequently a matter of conforming not to logic but to custom and tradition.
If enough people make a "mistake" in punctuation, or grammar, or the meaning of a word, that "mistake" becomes acceptable usage. This is a scientific fact of language. Through the years our language has changed, and will change, in its idioms, its vocabulary, its pronunciation, and its structural form. Change is the essential, inevitable phenomenon of a living language, as it is of any living organism. But this observation, this law, does not yet apply to the spelling of English words.
For many generations, spelling practice has been supported by sentiment, convention, prejudice, and custom. This is strong support, since each of us can think of many other activities similarly reinforced. The world is largely ruled by sentiment. A hundred, a thousand, observances are based only upon convention. Think briefly of the clothes people wear, table manners, office etiquette, and you will see the point. If sentiment, convention, and custom were removed from our social order, our way of living would be altered beyond recognition.
If English spelling were much more illogical than it is, the problem might be solved. Then no one could spell correctly; all of us would be bad spellers together. But enough people have learned to spell correctly to make things difficult for those who can't. This is the situation today, and we must make the best of it.
At some time in the distant future, correct spelling may be thought unimportant. Until that time, we can take comfort in realizing that spelling, like every other activity of the human mind, can be learned. It will have to be if we are to free ourselves from the doubts and frustrations which diminish our selfconfidence when we write. It will have to be if we wish to "get ahead," to be socially acceptable, to be considered educated and literate.
Why Spelling Is Difficult
Correct spelling is so important for social and business reasons that we feel obligated to learn to spell as well as we can, perfectly if possible. The task is not simple. It would be easier if spelling...Spell It Right. Copyright © by Harry Shaw. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.