Most teachers expect to correct their students' spelling mistakes once in a while. But Ken Smith has had enough. The senior lecturer in criminology at Bucks New University in Buckinghamshire, England, sees so many misspellings in papers submitted by first-year students that he says we'd be better off letting the perpetrators off the hook and doing away with certain spelling rules altogether.
Good spellers, Smith says, should be able to go on writing as usual; those who find the current rules of English too hard to learn should have their spelling labeled variant, not wrong. Smith zeroes in on 10 candidates for variant spellings, culled from his students' most commonly misspelled (or mispelled, as Smith suggests) words. Among them are Febuary instead of February, twelth instead of twelfth and truely instead of truly all words, he says, that involve confusion over silent letters. When students would ask why there's no e in truly, Smith didn't really have an answer. "I'd say, 'Well, I don't know. ... You've just got to drop it because people do,' " he says. Smith adds that when teachers correct spelling, they waste valuable time they could be spending on bigger ideas.
Word nerds aren't the only ones with a stake in the proposal. People who have trouble with spelling are punished when it comes to applying for jobs or even filling out forms, even though their mistakes are far from unusual, says Jack Bovill, chairman of the British-based Spelling Society, an international organization that has advocated simplified spellings since 1908. A 2007 Spelling Society survey of 1,000 British adults found that more than half could not spell embarrassed or millennium correctly and more than a quarter struggled with definitely, accidentally and separate.
Smith and Bovill are part of a long and illustrious line of spelling malcontents. Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt and even Noah Webster, father of American lexicography, all lobbied for spelling reform, their reasons ranging from traumatic childhood spelling experiences to the hope that easier communication would promote peace. In 1906, Mark Twain lobbied the Associated Press to use phonetic spelling. "The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet," he once wrote. "It doesn't know how to spell, and can't be taught."
Non-English-speaking countries have been simplifying their spelling for centuries: Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Norway, Ireland, Indonesia and Japan, among others, have all instituted such reforms; Portugal in May amended its spelling to follow the simpler Brazilian rules. Since 1755, when the English language was standardized in Samuel Johnson's aptly named Dictionary of the English Language, many variant spellings have become widely accepted on both sides of the pond. In 1864, for instance, the U.S. government officially changed the spelling of words like centre and timbre to end in the variant -er; more recently, at the beginning of the 20th century, fantasy became an accepted variant of phantasy.
But some language purists insist that there is value to the top-down rules of English. "People who spell a lot of words incorrectly either aren't paying attention or don't care," says Barbara Wallraff, who writes the Wordcourt column on language and writing problems for the Atlantic and King Features Syndicate. "Why are we changing our language to accommodate with two m's them?"
Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, says that changes to dictionary entries are always on the table, but he and his seven fellow editors are a tough crowd. They keep an eye on print publications to see whether a variant usage has started to become mainstream. Any word that seems to be a good candidate for an update undergoes rigorous scrutiny as the editors seek input from a panel of some 200 orthographic and lexicographic whizzes. Even among this writerly crowd, 13% admitted in 1996 to combining a lot into a single word. But 93% still considered it an error and corrected it in their own writing leading the editors not to change the entry. Variants are added to the dictionary, Pickett says, "only when we're really convinced that even people like us don't notice [the misspelling] much."
Smith, for his part, insists that he is advocating only for minor changes. "I'm not saying to people who have actually gone to all the trouble to learn all the exceptions to the rule that they should unlearn it. I'm just saying, let's have a few more variant spellings," he says. And if that doesn't catch on, he has another idea. "In the 21st century, why learn by heart rote spelling when you can just type it into a computer and spell-check?" he asks.