Book review: Does Spelling Matter? by Simon Horobin

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 May, 2013, 3:40pm


Does Spelling Matter?

by Simon Horobin

Oxford University Press

Oxford professor Simon Horobin argues against spelling reform on the grounds that the complex and inconsistent detail of English spelling is "testimony to the richness of our linguistic heritage and a connection with our literary past".

He begins with the social stigma that is so often attached to misspelling. To this purpose he quotes 18th-century diplomat Lord Chesterfield, who described secure orthography as "absolutely necessary" and recalled "a man of quality, who never recovered [from] the ridicule of having spelled wholesome without the w".

Chesterfield's attitude was only an embellished version of common prejudice. A good command of spelling is generally regarded as evidence of a tidy mind. People who are poor at spelling are treated as if they are stupid, whatever the evidence to the contrary, and are also suspected of not knowing they can't spell.

Horobin recalls that Tony Blair misspelled tomorrow three times in a document. The then-British prime minister's spin doctors claimed his "toomorrow" was a quirk of his flamboyant penmanship.

Inevitably, too, Horobin mentions former US vice-president Dan Quayle, purveyor of occasional memorable gaffes. In 1992 Quayle was ridiculed for correcting a 12-year-old schoolboy's spelling of potato: "You've almost got it … but it has an e on the end." Here, Quayle's graver offence was amending the efforts of someone who did know how to spell potato - an act that seemed a symptom of a larger misplaced confidence.

Having raised some nice questions about attitudes to correctness, Horobin then takes a different tack: he provides a solid history of English spelling, which highlights the role of enterprising individuals in shaping the standard. Some of these are well-known figures: Samuel Johnson, whose many interventions included drawing a distinction between council and counsel, and George Bernard Shaw, who claimed that "Shakespear [sic] might have written two or three more plays in the time it took him to spell his name with eleven letters instead of seven".

While Horobin is a sane, sensible guide to such matters, he doesn't probe the more philosophical aspects of the question he asks in the book's title. Why do we feel we need an invariant system of orthography? The standard response is that consistency equals clarity; inconsistencies are distracting.

A different answer, of a kind that wouldn't have been given 50 years ago, is that invariant spelling makes it easier to search through data that has been stored electronically.

For Horobin, spelling matters - and, more to the point, our existing spelling matters. Spelling is treated as if it is a tool, a technology which, at its best, creates a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. But really it is a cultural achievement and a record of the language's history.

Guardian News & Media