The Negative Canon: Spelling

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

There are perhaps aspects of spelling that deserve a place in the Negative Canon, but they’re hard to pin down with any precision. Instead, I’ll make some general observations, and just mention at the end a couple of spellings which are sometimes the targets of the tut-tutters.

Spelling is important. It helps communication enormously if we all stick to the conventions that happen to be current at the time we are writing. Deviant practices take attention away from what we are saying, and lead our readers to give their attention to the way we are saying it. Careless spelling risks misunderstanding, or at best makes reading more difficult, and will, if nothing else, undermine readers’ confidence in our credibility.

It’s necessary to say this to ward off the tired old charge that those of us who try to take an objective  look at language use think that anything goes. I say no such thing, and nor does any serious linguist. However, there are those who seem to think that all you have to do to write effectively, apart from conforming to their own personal ideas of grammar and word use, is to spell according to the accepted norms. On the contrary, getting spelling right is the start of the process, not the end. Concentrating on spelling alone creates the impression that nothing else much matters.

There’s no reason in principle why we shouldn’t spell words in different ways. In fact, there once was variation in spelling and no one worried much about it, but that was when few could read and write. When printing made mass written communication possible, it was clearly helpful if everyone tried to observe the same conventions of spelling found at any one particular time. It still took a long time before the conventions we know today were standardised, and even now they are not essential and unchanging components of the language. As Simon Horobin tells us, ‘we should accept changes in spelling as part of the natural evolution of our language.’

This idea seems to bother some people. For example, there are pairs of words which vary their spelling with a single vowel letter. The spelling sometimes shows the difference between the noun and the adjective, as with dependent and dependant. Others indicate a different meaning, as with stationery and stationary. The pair most often picked on seems to be affect and effect. Very generally, the first is a verb and the second is a noun, but in some contexts effect can be a verb, and in some contexts affect can be a noun. For the time being, writers must observe these distinctions if they are not to be thought incompetent, but if they are lost there will be no need to mourn them. Anyone who claims that ambiguity will be the result needs to explain why there is no ambiguity with the many homophones that already exist.

Finally, as promised, here are two fairly trivial spelling points that sometimes provoke comment.

Alot. In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters reports that:

There are some 50 instances in British data from the BNC, almost entirely from three sources: e-mail, TV autocue data, and TV newscripts. Citations obtained by Webster’s English Usage (1989) are mostly from memos, private correspondence and draft prose. The occasional instance of alot might be just a typo, a failure to press the space bar on the keyboard. But its recurrence in typescript or in handwritten manuscripts makes it more significant, as the shadow of things to come.

She notes that alot lacks real analogues, but comments that ‘the nearest is awhile, also compounded with the indefinite article, but sanctioned by centuries of use.’ There are those who love to take photographs of instances of alot, seeking to establish, here as elsewhere, their intellectual and social superiority, but I suspect it will be decades, if not centuries, before it has the same sanction as awhile. It seems in any case too trivial to worry much about.

Alright. I have always written it that way rather than as all right, but I don’t see what’s wrong with it, when we write already, always, almost, also, although and altogether. As Pam Peters writes:

At the turn of the millennium, alright is there to be used without any second thoughts.

Apart from anything else, alright allows us to distinguish between ‘The answers were all right’ and ‘The answers were alright.’


Filed under The Negative Canon

6 responses to “The Negative Canon: Spelling

  1. I’ve never understood why we both (a) must preserve the distinction! but (b) cannot make a distinction!

    It’s really just (c) we must not ever change from what I grew up with!


  2. Cristian Bonucci

    As someone who used to read a considerable quantity of letters in the past from all corners of the globe, I can say that the instances of ‘alot’ with which I came across were mostly written by people with an American English background. That might have been mere coincidental statistics, of course, and what Pam Peters reported in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ proves that may be the case.

    I agree with what you have exemplified in the ‘alright’/’all right’ juxtaposition; however, the more evident difference in meaning between ‘altogether’ and ‘all together’ requires a little more care in terms of spelling choice when writing them down, especially in those cases where context actually leaves next to no room for doubt, I think.


  3. I’m sure you’re right about ‘alot’, Cristian (and you may also be right about a lot).

    I think that if the spelling ‘alright’ becomes more widespread, any such difficulty will diminish.


  4. Standardised spelling is essential for searching digital information. Google offers a range of near alternatives but Word and Kindle, to name just two, will only find the precise string that has been entered, or something very close to it.

    Other examples of apparently unnecessary spelling differences are the nouns advice, licence, practice and prophecy versus the verbs advise, license, practise and prophesy. It is true that advice, advise and prophecy, prophesy are differentiated in pronunciation but the other pairs are not. I have observed confusion there, no doubt influenced by the American use of the c form for both.

    I was taught at school (or my memory tells me that I was, which is not necessarily the same thing) thaton to should always be written as two words.

    However, it is easy to see a useful difference between:
    We drove on to the beach.
    We drove onto the beach.
    In this case pronunciation provides the difference in the inflection.

    As principal and principle are homophones the difference seems pointless in writing.

    Given that lot is a noun (though not usually recognised as such outside auction houses) awhile would seem to be a pretty good analogue for alot. Another word in which the indefinite article has become attached to the following word, in this case an adjective, is another itself.

    Cannot is written as one word, perhaps because of the stress on the first syllable.

    There are also anytime and everyday written solid when used as adverbs.

    These may or may not be trivial and need decades to solve but some are real problems, especially in view of the ‘intellectual and social superiority’ that error-spotters so often and so tediously exude. But allied to such attitudes, and to native British conservatism, is the real problem that nobody will risk the opprobrium of acting first; imagine the Times announcing that it would use licence as a verb or principle as an adjective. This is where, contrary to all British received wisdom, an Academy can be valuable. The Spanish Royal Academy of the Language still has the motto ‘Limpia, fija y da esplendor (It cleanses, fixes and gives splendour) on its coat of arms; that view goes back to its foundation in 1713, when it was felt that the language had reached the acme of perfection (a view expressed by Jonathan Swift a year earlier and espoused by Dr Johnson as his intention when he started writing his own English dictionary) but as long ago as 1993 it decided that

    “its principal mission is to ensure that the changes that the Spanish language undergoes in its constant adaptation to the needs of its speakers do not breach the essential unity that it maintains throughout the Hispanic world”.

    The Academy is criticised, and justifiably so, for being very conservative but it does try to iron out inconsistencies in spelling and use of accents for example.
    There are, I believe, inherent differences between Romance languages and English that make them easier to standardise.


  5. Technology has certainly created a new need for standardised spelling.

    Other readers might like to pursue the Academy point on Peter’s own blog, where he has now posted this comment.


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