Spelling is a teaching issue

September 11, 2008

Paul Seedhouse (Letters, 4 September) says that I should not write about spelling because I am not a specialist in this area and because no coherent principles were applied to what I said on this subject, but I would like to point out that I did not write about spelling in a linguistics journal or even as a student of linguistics (God forbid), but as a teacher in higher education writing in a journal for other teachers in higher education.

What I wrote did also have an organising principle of sorts, although not one up to the rigorous standards of the department of linguistics at Newcastle University. This was that, except where any actual ambiguity is caused, usage should take precedence over etymology or even the rules of pronunciation in deciding whether variant spellings should be allowed. I do also have some qualifications to write on this subject other than as a lecturer in criminology. Since I came to Bucks New University I have been encouraged to study teaching and learning as an academic subject in its own right, and last year I completed my MA in learning and teaching in higher education.

My suggestion is that unless any ambiguity is caused (matting for mating, rapping for raping and so on) university teachers need to think deeply about what it is that they are doing when they reach for their red pens to cross the "e" out in the middle of "arguement" or add an "e" on the end of "ignore" - to make the "o" sound long I am assured - when, somehow, the words "nor" and "or" (except oddly enough when it is a metal) manage to get by without an "e" on the end.

Pronunciation varies from one part of the country to another and from one English-speaking country to another, while the etymology of a word such as "opportunity" tells us why we spell it the way we do, but it does not tell us anything at all about why we should go on spelling it this way; that is a purely sociological question.

Is anyone seriously suggesting that someone might go out to buy a potato but come home with a tomato instead because a stallholder puts an "e" on the end of either of these words in the singular?

If not, then why are we quite so keen to correct this error, especially when both words take an "e"in the plural (the cause of all the confusion I think) and when adding an "e" helps us to pronounce it the way we do.

Perhaps then it is the stallholders and our students who have this right (now there is a thought!) and not professors of linguistics.

Ken Smith, Bucks New University.

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