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.’