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Why spelling matters

by: Garry Pierrepont (30 September 2008)

The following article appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 8 September 2008.

Spelling should be "freed up" and the apostrophe scrapped, according to John Wells, Emeritus Professor of Phonetics at University College London.

He proposes turning "give" into "giv", "river" into "rivver" and embracing Americanisms such as "organize" with a "z".

In a speech to the centenary dinner of the Spelling Society, of which he is president, Prof Wells will blame the country's literacy problems on the "burden" the English spelling system places on children.

"It seems to be a great pity that English-speaking countries are holding back children in this way," Prof Wells will say.

"In Finnish, once you have learned the letters, you know how to spell, so it would be ludicrous to hold spelling tests. In countries like Italy and Spain it's similar.

"But with English it's not phonetic, and there are just so many irregularities."

In a statement bound to bring him into direct confrontation with traditionalists, Prof Wells will say that abbreviations commonly used in text messaging should be used more widely.

"Text messaging, email and internet chat rooms are showing us the way forward for English."

"Let's allow people greater freedom to spell logically. It's time to remove the fetish that says that correct spelling is a principal (principle?) mark of being educated," Prof Wells will say.

Prof Wells will also claim the apostrophe causes unnecessary linguistic barriers.

"Instead of an apostrophe," he will say, "we could just leave it out (it's could become its) or leave a space (so we'll would become we ll). Have we really nothing better to do with our lives than fret about the apostrophe?"

It was met with a fair few comments (103 to date), most of which laughed the Professor’s suggestions out of court.

His suggestion is, of course, utter nonsense. And here are a few reasons why.

How would Professor Wells make a difference between our, hour, are?

And between: there, they’re, their?

The chances of misinterpreted communications would be vastly increased.

More critical are the differences between different social groups.

How would a Londoner be able to read what a Geordie wrote and make sense of it?

Repeat above sentence for Brummie, Cornish, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, East Anglian, Mancunian, Liverpudlian etc.

It is the very richness and, yes, standardisation, of the spelling of English that helps us to understand what is being written.

Another set of social groups is the different ages of people.

Let us assume the Professor wants us to re-spell the word right. What might he suggest: rite? Is that the way he might (mite) say it? What about the 13-year-old down the road? She might say ri’ (losing the t sound at the end), but of course there’s no apostrophe in Professor Wells’s world, so it would be simply ri. But is that then ri as in ring or ri as in, well, right?

Cum on profesor stop torkin such a loed ovv ol twadl

Views: 3138

Other articles on Punctuation, spelling and grammar and Communication and language

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'Grammar vigilante' at work   How Waitrose used the grocer's apostrophe   What is the difference between proofreading and rewriting?  

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