Does Spelling Matter?

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford, recently published a book with the above title. As widely reported (here, here and here), he spoke about the subject at the UK’s Hay Festival this year. Much of the reaction was predictably hostile, which only goes to show how few took the trouble to read what he actually said, or, having read it, were able to understand its import.

In this article in ‘Oxford Today’, he asks ‘What’s happening to English Spelling?’, and wryly observes that for somelearning to spell correctly is seen as character-building, a rite of passage, a test of moral fibre, like taking cold showers or early morning runs’ and that ‘those who have taken the trouble to learn it have considerable investment in ensuring that others are obliged to do the same.’

His central point is that ‘we should accept changes in spelling as part of the natural evolution of our language.’ This is not to say that English needs a wholesale change to its spelling system, as some claim. What it does mean is that spelling, like everything else in the language, has changed, is changing, and will continue to change, whether we like it or not.



Filed under English Language, Language

4 responses to “Does Spelling Matter?

  1. I will die writing “doughnut”, “through”, “though”, “night”, “light”, and other old spellings. To save effort by writing “donut”, “thru”, “tho”, “nite”, “lite”, and other new (reformed?) spellings doesn’t bring about mayhem and the end of the world as we know it, of course, but these truncated spellings look lazy to me.


    • Does ‘win’ instead of Chaucer’s ‘winne’ also look lazy? A single lifetime isn’t long in the history of a language, and these changes sometimes occur at glacial speed.


    • Ted McClure

      I agree, but for a different reason. Most search algorithms are not intelligent enough to equate “through” and “thru”. If the same word is spelled differently, we are placing an additional demand on the searcher to create an OR phrase of some sort. Also, sometimes the words diverge in meaning. “Light” and “lite” are moving apart as the latter becomes more associated with “less substance” vice “less weight” in American conversational English.


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