Wednesday, February 01, 2012

To Spell Or Not To Spell

British academic Ken Smith, exhausted from the war against atrocious spelling, is suggesting the time has come for profs to embrace common misspellings of words as acceptable variants.

Should teachers look the other way when students write "ignor" for "ignore," "arguement" for "argument," or "Febuary" for "February?" Is the cause of correct spelling still a battle worth fighting in the age of chat-speak and spell check?

From Smith's article in The Times Higher Education:
... Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.

The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment", so why can't "truely" be accepted as a variant spelling of "truly"?

Smith goes on to submit ten words as examples of common misspellings that should be declared legitimate English variants, among them:


- Arguement for argument. Why do we drop the "e" in argument (and in judgment) but not in management? We do not pronounce "argument" "ar-gum-ent", so why should we spell it this way?

- Febuary for February (and Wensday for Wednesday). We spell the word "February" the way we do only because it is taken from the Latin word februa, the Roman festival of purification. Similarly, the "correct" spelling of the word "Wednesday" comes from the Old English Wodnes daeg, or Woden's day. But why should we still pay homage today to a pagan god or a Roman festival of purification?

- Ignor for ignore. The word "ignore" comes from the Latin ignorare meaning "to know" and ignarus meaning "ignorant". Neither of these words has an "e" after the "r", so why do we?

Although at first I bristled reflexively at the notion of lowering the guard of academic rigor protecting traditional English orthography, I then took the point made in a recent Reuters article on Smith's controversial recommendation that no language, it seems, is less consistent than English in obeying it's own spelling rules or more arbitrary in allowing variants:

Playwright George Bernard Shaw was fond of pointing out that the word "ghoti" could just as well be pronounced "fish" if you followed common pronunciation: 'gh' as in "tough", 'o' as in "women" and 'ti' as in "nation".

Hmmm.

To spell, or not to spell ... which is nobler?

That is indeed the kweschun.

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