Bad spells cloud literary climate

July 9, 2004

Frustrated by the inability of so many people to spell his name correctly, the linguist Vivian Cook set out to discover why English people find it difficult to spell everyday words.

The fruits of his labour, Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary: Or Why Can't Anybody Spell English? comes out next month as Professor Cook moves from Essex University to Newcastle, where he will no doubt have to suffer the indignity of people mistaking him for a woman - at least on paper - all over again (with an 'a' it's a man's name, with an 'e' it's a woman's name).

"When people hear I'm writing a book about spelling, the reaction is usually 'Who on earth cares about spelling apart from pedants and cranks?"

he said. "Probably my subconscious starting point was the problem every man called Vivian faces... The spelling of one's name can be a sore point for many people."

Professor Cook said only one person in every hundred has mastered English spelling - 60 per cent of children aged 15 cannot write ten lines without making at least one mistake. Even writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound and, especially, Keats got it wrong time and again.

In his English students' essays, Professor Cook discovered a pattern of very similar mistakes - such as the spelling of idiosyncratic single words and pronunciation-based problems. This led him to the conclusion that spelling has been unduly neglected and that the teaching of spelling should rely on checking for a set of frequent mistakes and on explanations of spelling rules for sound/letter relationships.

"Spelling is dismissed as one of those inevitable problems, like the weather, and we need to grit our teeth and bear it," he says.

"Spelling mistakes are often felt to be a sign of lack of education; while accent and grammar can be excused, spelling mistakes can be unforgivable.

Leaving the teaching of spelling to haphazard correction cannot be in the students' best interests."

TOP TEN SPELLING ERRORS

* minuscule (miniscule)

* supersede (supercede)

* accommodation (accomodation)

* ecstasy (ecstacy)

* embarrass (embarass)

* receive (recieve)

* desiccate (desicate)

* definitely (definately)

* pronunciation (pronounciation)

* separate (seperate)

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