British Professor Suggests Standard Spellings

This is an article I read recently at the on-line news source, The Independent in the UK.

Gasps of shock at Hay Literary Festival as professor asks for grammar pedants to relax

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.
What do you think of this? Should we “standardize” our American English spellings? 

A native Montanan,
Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.


Karen Cioffi said...

Heidi, interesting post. I see a need for differentiating between words that sound alike, but have different meanings (and spellings), homonyms. I can though also see how they may be confusing for children.

widdershins said...

*ponders* ... I can't think how this will work until there is an 'accepted' alternative meaning for each spelling 'elimination'. Its and it's, (for example) mean two vastly different things, no matter what part of the English speaking world you're from.

Heidiwriter said...

I know! English is confusing enough as it is.

Magdalena Ball said...

this is timely, Heidi, as I'll be shortly reviewing a tool (Grammarly)that helps a lot with these little errors. Much as I love Lynne Truss, I tend to lean towards Prof Horobin. Language is always changing and I think it's ridiculous to be too picky and obsessive. That said, misspellings and grammar mistakes (even little ones like apostrophes) can often obscure meaning and cause confusion, and since creating meaning is what writers do, it's critical that we learn the rules (and use tools and extra sets of eyes to help us).

Greta said...

There is certainly something to be said for standardising (zing) spelling such as color and colour. I mean, who cares?

I guess the argument for using the same spelling for words like 'there, they're, their', is that when spoken, they are pronounced in the same way and we work out the meaning from context. I wonder if that would work when reading - unless we actually sound the words out (which we do not do when reading at speed).

Unknown said...

I don't think people who can't spell are stupid at all. I think they're just not trying to care, not concerned with the person who does the reading. Most spelling and grammar errors are just laziness.

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