When you were about nine years old you were extracted from the classes that everyone else was attending in order to do extra nature study.
It was one of those half arsed efforts schools make sometimes towards catering for ‘gifted’ children, the quotation marks there being entirely justified as the lesson you were lifted out of on the grounds that you were too good for it was the spelling class.
You spent the next twelve years being told by successive teachers that your spelling was appalling.
It wasn’t until you were actually a trainee on the course you now tutor on yourself that someone actually bothered to tell you which words you were misspelling though. Thanks to the fact that your essays came back with all the mistakes neatly underlined in green pen you discovered that it wasn’t (just) those long and complicated terms you had been dutifully looking up for all those years, but pretty much every fifth word.
Incidentally, you would just like to point out how difficult it is to find things in the dictionary if you don’t know how to spell them in the first place. Who knew ‘exercise’ began ‘exe’ and not ‘exc’, for example? The time you wasted on that long ago day when you were checking those errors because you had to go through the whole of the ‘e’ section to track that one word down has been indelibly burned on your memory.
And that’s assuming you’ve got the first letter right, which, trust me, is not something anyone should assume about your spelling.
Now, of course, the boot is on the other foot and you are the one driven to incandescent rage by the innaccuracies of your native speaker trainees.
So you do have a certain amount of sympathy for Dr Bernard Lamb of Imperial College, London, who has become so irritated by having to mark page after page of badly spelt essays that he has written a book about the mistakes his students have made. People have been handing you clippings about it – can’t imagine why – and you even caught a delightful little slot on BBC Breakfast news last week where he and another expert were slugging it out on the topic.
The thing about spelling – and punctuation for that matter – is that it does seem to bring out the raging pedant in people. Well, bad spelling brings him out in other people. You tend to get in touch with your inner disgusted of Tunbridge Wells over misplaced commas and the misuse of the word ‘however’.
Now, let’s be honest, this is rarely about people genuinely misinterpreting what has been said because the spelling, or even the punctuation is wrong.
Sure, there are lots of pithy little examples you could give to show how different punctuation – or even spelling slips – can radically alter the meaning, but these are always isolated sentences. What people should remember is that that’s not how they would be reading them in real life. The context almost always allows people to figure out what was meant.
It does slow them down, though. And this is what people seem to lose sight of when it comes to the debate about good spelling.
The point is, good spelling in and of itself is not a virtue. But it does help people process your text with the minimum of effort possible.
Punctuation too is not there – nowadays – to tell you how to phrase the text when reading aloud. Commas, for example, do not… do not – this is one of your pet hates – ‘tell people where to breathe’. The only texts we read out loud now are bedtime stories to kids, the religious book in the religious establishment of our choice, or, and you find this particularly unhelpful, whatever book the literature class is ploughing though in school.
Good punctuation, therefore, is there to help the eyes take the right route through the text, and occasionally, if anyone ever uses a semicolon correctly, show the brain the connection between ideas.
Reading is a silent and individual activity. All those moving their lips are not doing it properly.
Layout, of course, is also helpful here. Count the number of sentences that go to make up a paragraph in a text designed to be read on screen compared to one designed to be read in a more traditional format. The better ones have much shorter paragraphs, and quite short sentences. Much like newspapers.
It’s to take the strain off the reader because if other people are anything like you, reading off a monitor is considerably more laborious than reading off a page. Newspapers, of course, just want the whole experience to be as pain free and exciting as possible. One sentence paragraphs therefore abound, and this is good. For that context.
So badly spelt, punctuated or laid out texts are annoying because they trip you up. You are spilled out of the act of smoothly navigating through the mass of wriggly symbols and forced to spend extra time regrouping the words yourself so they make sense, mentally rearranging the letters so they are now in the right order, or lying down in a darkened room for half an our to stop the migraine from striking.
And, quite understandably, this is infuriating if it happens too often.
Now fair enough, but you don’t think the effortlessly good spellers of this world realise what a trial it is to get it right for those who don’t have any kind of feel for the right combination of letters at all.
You’ve spent the last ten years noting down your misspellings. Spellcheckers are enormously helpful here. You’ve worked out your habitual errors you’ve learned as many rules as you can to help you.
There are a lot.
Take trying to work out when to use double letters.
Don’t, please, trot out that old chestnut about double consonants showing short vowel sounds rather than long ones (‘rapped’ vs ‘raped’ as Dr Shaw so amusingly put it on Breakfast). It’s following that kind of logic that has had you spelling ‘apologise’ with two ‘p’s all these years. As for vowels, since ‘lose’ is a long vowel sound and the same as ‘choose’, and ‘loose is a short vowel sound and not the same as ‘chose’, you can be forgiven for perennially getting the two confused. In your opinion.
There are, it has to be said, lots of fairly fixed patterns when it comes to doubling a letter when adding a suffix to the base word (‘hot’ to ‘hotter’ and ‘occur’ to ‘occurred’, ‘travel’ to ‘travelling’ and so on) and this has significantly improved the quality of your life.
But then many words just defy reason altogether. You were entirely in agreement with Dr Shaw’s Breakfast opponent, Masha Bell, a woman who seems to have dedicated her life to trying to explain spelling to people, who said that being of a logical bent did not help when it comes to spelling.
Of course, you would take this further and say that if you are bad at spelling, you must be very logical. This entirely justifies the fact that ever since you discovered that ‘acknowledge begins ‘ack’ not ‘ak’ you have been having to forcible restrain yourself from writing ‘chunk’ as ‘chunk’ and not ‘chunck’, with very little success.
And in any case there’s nothing much you can do at all about words ending ‘ent’ or ‘ant’ or ‘ence’ or ‘ance’, ‘er’ or ‘or’ or in the case of ‘grammar’, ‘ar’. Unstressed and so sounding exactly the bloody same as each other, so no kind of rules apply at all. Whaddayamean, learn them all off by heart? Do you know how many brain cells that wastes? Why can’t we just choose one and stick to it?
So you do make a distinction between when it is important to get it right and when it isn’t, and it should surprise no one that you are incredibly intolerant of anyone who claims to have problems with spelling who can’t do the same.
And just so everyone knows, here are your guidelines.
Anything which is permanent, which you actually want people to read carefully, or which you want to impress someone with should be checked to within an inch of its life. And if it means looking up every word on your increasingly long list of problem areas to make sure it’s right, then so be it. This applies to academic essays, blog entries, emails to prospective employers as well as the more obvious CV, professional correspondence generally, and boardwork for students to copy down.
In fact, it’s nothing to do with problems with spelling; it’s simply a matter of sharpening up proof reading skills. Or, in fact, proof reading at all.
Frankly, since most of people’s permanent writing is, or can be, word processed these days, there really isn’t much excuse for not getting it mostly right. The software might not help with the there/ their/ they’re conundrum, and have an inexplicable hatred for your use of ‘which’ and ‘who’ in defining relative clauses, but it can certainly earn its keep by pointing out where you’ve got ‘perennially’, ‘incandescent’ and ‘enormously’ wrong.
And as for the rest, a tip. Reading from the end of the line to the beginning helps. It removes the focus from content to form.
However, considering how much effort this takes, anything which is impermanent, where you might be able to rely on people liking you enough to overlook five typos in as many lines, where you are just trying to drop a quick note on your way out of the door to let someone know where you’re all going for a drink that evening, or when you are trying to reply to someone by email before your internet connection goes down again – gutted you were, when that excuse ran out with your acquisition of broadband…
… well, you can’t justify the five point blood pressure rise and the years off your life it would take to get it right.