No need ever to look dumb again in this digital age; you can always ask (without anyone knowing). Oxford University Press gives us spelling rules which can be consulted on the go. The owners of triple crown winner American Pharoah obviously failed to look.

I’ve always been a poor speller. Immediately after I came to America I was able to hide behind the claim “Oh yes; that’s the way we spell it in Britain”, but that’s wearing a bit thin now. As I type these words WordPress’s ever eager spellchecker keeps me on track — except when it throws me to the dogs with an assumption that what I was really trying to say was X, not the somewhat similar Y I actually had in mind. With luck I notice these glitches. I did get a complaint about this blog once  from someone in Germany who said that although the posts were quite interesting she refused to go on reading because of all the spelling errors. I had to put this down to her expectation (perhaps) that words with dual US/UK spelling variants should follow the UK pattern. My spellchecker doesn’t however agree, and when I type the UK variant it will silently “correct” me, or at least query the word by a dotted red underline. So I think it takes some determination to misspell a word when you are writing on a computer. (I must have typed Pharoah above at least six times.)

I wonder if this is why spelling seems to be less emphasized in school these days. If spelling is just a mechanical thing which computers can take care of, should we then still value good spelling and drill kids in it? Obviously there are misspellings which can lead to misunderstanding, but not too often. The purpose of writing is communication and spelling spelling as “speling” doesn’t really get in the way of that. You might think it odd that I sometimes spelled the word with one “L” and sometimes with two, but you wouldn’t mistake what it was I was on about. According to the OUP rules the past tense of travel is spelt with one “L” in America and two in Britain. I hadn’t realized this before — however whether I type travelled or traveled my spellchecker remains happy either way. Maybe we see them both as acceptable alternatives now.

Which leads me on to another part of my anti-spelling stance. It keeps on changing. Not overnight, but certainly within a lifetime. Dictionaries usually take account of such movement by labeling* the new version as “rare” “obscure” “slang”, then in their next edition as “alternative” “variant” until the order is switched an the old version graduates to “archaic” “rare”. If everything is relative why shouldn’t I develop my own personal brand of orthography? But we don’t do we? Not even George Bernard Shaw would spell fish ghote. I guess it’s simpler to stick with the well-worn pathways of recognized spellings.

Am I just being old-fashioned in my prejudice against misspellings in books? After all I have spent a lifetime dedicated to getting them out of there. Is it just something publishers do, or does it really make a difference? I believe in a timid sort of way that spelling shouldn’t be allowed to become a shibboleth, and that as long as the message gets across that’s enough, but it will be a brave publisher who first willfully publishes a misspelled book (which isn’t some sort of experimental, Finnegans Wake-ian writing). I tend to lose confidence in the author and publisher if there are obvious spelling errors — though I do still insist that that must just be my conditioning. What is I think beyond dispute is the reduction in proofreading of books: the fact that we are unwilling to spend money to avoid spelling and vocabulary errors means inevitably that we see more and more of them. As we get more used to them, maybe we’ll get used to them!

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* Spellchecker insists on one “L” though Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary assures me it has two.

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