Just spell it like it is

Don't let students' howlers drive you mad, says Ken Smith. Accept their most common mistakes as variant spellings ... and relax

August 7, 2008

Teaching a large first-year course at a British university, I am fed up with correcting my students' atrocious spelling. Aren't we all!?

But why must we suffer? Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea. University teachers should simply accept as variant spelling those words our students most commonly misspell.

The spelling of the word "judgement", for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of "judgment", so why can't "truely" be accepted as a variant spelling of "truly"?

As a starting point, may I suggest the following ten candidates, which are based on the most commonly misspelt words by my students:

- Arguement for argument. Why do we drop the "e" in argument (and in judgment) but not in management? We do not pronounce "argument" "ar-gum-ent", so why should we spell it this way?

- Febuary for February (and Wensday for Wednesday). We spell the word "February" the way we do only because it is taken from the Latin word februa, the Roman festival of purification. Similarly, the "correct" spelling of the word "Wednesday" comes from the Old English Wodnes daeg, or Woden's day. But why should we still pay homage today to a pagan god or a Roman festival of purification?

- Ignor for ignore. The word "ignore" comes from the Latin ignorare meaning "to know" and ignarus meaning "ignorant". Neither of these words has an "e" after the "r", so why do we?

- Occured for occurred. There is no second "r" in the words "occur" or "occurs" and that is why nearly everyone misspells this word. Would it really upset you to allow this change, and if so why?

- Opertunity for opportunity. This looks odd, but in fact we only spell "opportunity" as we do because in Latin this word refers to the timely arrival at a harbour - Latin portus. However in Latin this word is spelt obportus not opportus, so, if we were being consistent, we should spell "opportunity" as "obportunity".

- Que for queue, or better yet cue or even kew. Where did we get the second "ue" in the word "queue"? Its etymology is obscure. But, etymology or not, why do we need it?

- Speach for speech. We spell "speak" with an "ea". We do not have to but we do. Since we do, let us then spell "speech" with an "a" too, to coincide with the spelling of the words "peach", "preach" and "teach". Both words come from the same origin - the Old English spechan - which, therefore, does not support either the "ea" or "ee" spelling.

- Thier for their (or better still, why not just drop the word their altogether in favour of there?). It does not make any difference to the meaning of a sentence if you spell "their" as "thier" or "there", and the proof of this is that you are always able to correct this. "Thier" would also be consistent with the "i" before "e" rule, so why do you insist on "their"?

- Truely for truly. We don't spell the adverb "surely" as "surly" because this would make another word, so why is the adverb of "true" spelt "truly"?

- Twelth as twelfth. The "f" word. How on earth did that "f" get in there? The answer is Old English again: twelf is related to the Frisian tweli, but why should we care? You would not dream of spelling the words "stealth" or "wealth" with an "f" in them (as "stealfth" and "wealfth") so why insist on putting the "f" in "twelfth"?

I could go on and add another ten words that are commonly misspelt - the word "misspelt" itself of course, and all those others that break the "i" before "e" rule (weird, seize, leisure, neighbour, foreign etc) - but I think I have made my point.

Either we go on beating ourselves and our students up over this problem or we simply give everyone a break and accept these variant spellings as such.

Remember, I am not asking you to learn to spell these words differently. All I am suggesting is that we might well put 20 or so of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language on the same footing as those other words that have a widely accepted variant spelling.

Send your exam howlers for 2008 to rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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