Monday, 17 November 2014


I've been thinking about spelling quite a lot recently. I've never had very many problems with spelling, and I think that's largely because I have always read a lot. If you read a lot, the patterns of the words, however illogical the spelling of many English words may be, fix themselves somehow on your retina or in your memory and you can reproduce them without too much difficulty. Spelling in English is incredibly inconsistent, for all sorts of historical reasons, so learning rules probably doesn't get you very far. I remain in awe of people who learn it as a language which is not their first. Welsh is so much easier, despite all the silly jokes beloved of (usually, English, or at least Anglophone) journalists. Learn the rules and with a very few exceptions you can pronounce the words: hear the words and you can, usually, have a stab at spelling them accurately. Not so with English (or should that be Inglish?)

I've been trying to work out which words are likely to cause problems, particularly for anyone who doesn't read widely in English and/or for anyone whose language of education is not English (in order to help my son a little with his English, for one thing). How fortunate we are to have the outpourings of Twitter, comments on newspaper articles and other manifestations online to give us a clue. Here are a few versions of English words and phrases, all of which I have seen online recently:

draw [for furniture]
chester draws [ditto]
I don't give a dam
The damn has burst
To and throw
bi laws
the church bizarre

These are all probably genuine misspellings rather than typos, and suggest a lack of understanding of the meaning of some of the expressions (if you can change "to and fro" to something quite different it suggests that you don't understand where the phrase comes from). They are certainly also the result of hearing, but not seeing, the words. There are plenty more to be seen all the time online.

In the face of all this, I might be wasting my time trying to convince my son that correct spelling matters. After all, he can see examples of mistakes every day, many of them made by adults (and many of those are quite well-educated adults).  Perhaps I am just too fussy! I admit to pedantry - but there is still a point to spelling, even in a language which makes it so difficult for you by the divergence between its orthography and its pronunciation. How many online searches fail because of incorrect spelling, for instance? Google will often give you the accurate alternative, but not everything else does (including many library catalogues and databases).

Thoughts, and examples, welcome!

Dr. Bethan Jenkins of Oxford has pointed me in the direction of eggcorns, which I hadn't come across before. It's a database of exactly what I was thinking of, but with citations. I haven't given any citations, largely because my examples are things I have spotted people I know either in real life or online using, and I think anonymity is, in that case, the wisest if not the most reliable course (so I can't back anything up!)

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