Does your spelling make you want to spit?

Accurate spelling is something I value. Do you? I know that sounds very old-fashioned in the light of modern day text messaging and online shortcuts and abbreviations. But like most things there are good reasons behind what sometimes appears like unnecessary rule-following. In the case of good spelling, I believe the reason is to maintain uniformity, which leads to accuracy.

The other reason why some people see good spelling as desirable is to demonstrate the writer’s level of education and literacy, but I’m not sure if this is a particularly accurate gauge. One of the worst spellers I’ve ever known was a doctor who could write out prescriptions using perfect 20-letter pharmaceutical terms but couldn’t write a postcard to his mother without 6 or 7 goofs in it. The other atrocious speller I know is a brilliant mathematician and is definitely not dyslexic.

Spell checkers are OK, but not perfect

Most word processing software includes some sort of spelling checker device and these are helpful, but not infallible. They will pick up typos and glaring mistakes but, being machines, are far too logical to cope with the insanity of the English language and can’t deal with homophones or wrong words that are spelled right or apostrophes appearing in the wrong place.

Many word processing packages also incorporate grammar/syntax nannies, rather like mine which sticks a disapproving green line under most of my work. I ignore it. Finally, most word processing packages give you the option to select UK or USA spellings, which leads us directly into another can of worms.

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Which English spellings – UK or US?

Many people ask me how text should be spelled for international English language communication. My answer is I don’t know. Possibly you should spell according to the organization’s country of origin – where its headquarters and roots are. But that gets blown straight out of the water if the company’s origins are a small distillery in the Highlands of Scotland which has now been supplemented by a multi-million dollar manufacturing and distribution operation incorporating 24 huge factory/warehouse sites coast to coast in the United States.

Possibly, then, you should spell according to the country in which the largest amount of the organization’s business is done, but with hierarchies being what they are this may not work out evenly either. Probably, though, if we wait for a while the internet will solve the problem because, through its aggressive internationalism, English language spellings will become standardized everywhere.

And because the US has the rest of us by the short hairs on the internet there are no prizes for guessing which type of English we’ll standardize to. Although the mere thought of it will make most British-speak purists burst into tears, I must say I’m looking forward to the day when I can write out a “check” in the UK for new “tires” on my car and then go home and watch a good “program” on TV.

(By the way, if you want a great little guide to English words on either side of The Pond, you’ll love my book, “English To English – the A to Z of British-American translations.”)

So what can you do to improve your spelling?

In the first instance, consult your spell checker and then be sure to human-check any ambiguous elements. Also, use the Thesaurus facility if you’re unsure how to spell a particular word; enter a simpler synonym that you can spell, and your other word should come up.

Alternatively, at the risk of sounding like my usual low-tech self, I would say use a dictionary. Despite being paper-based, a dictionary is often the faster way to find a word.

A bit of (clean) fun to finish

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.”

Yes, you got it:

“According to a researcher (sic) at Cambridge University, it doesn’t matter in what order the letters in a word are, the only important thing is that the first and last letter be at the right place. The rest can be a total mess and you can still read it without problem. This is because the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole.”

So it seems as long as the first and last letters of a word are correct, our eyes/brains are programmed to understand it. Does this blow the whole need for good spelling out of the water?

More help to stop you spitting:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

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