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Communication is changing, so does spelling matter?

Does grammatical elegance really matter, if the objective of communication is just to be understood, wonders Colin Randall
Does grammatical elegance really matter, if the objective of communication is just to be understood. Charles Krupa / AP Photo
Does grammatical elegance really matter, if the objective of communication is just to be understood. Charles Krupa / AP Photo

At about the same time that politicians in Europe were stitching together a deal to rescue Greece from drowning in debt, I was trying to save my home from being flooded when an overflowing tank sent water pouring through ceilings.

Mick, the builder to whom I had turned for help, gave hope. “OK”, he said by text message, “I’ll have a word with the plummer and fined out when he can do it?”

Now Mick knows things I shall never know and performs tasks that will forever be beyond me. He is a man of bricks and mortar rather than words and it is unimportant that his message had basic misspellings and an unnecessary question mark.

He may even have been guilty of no more than clunky-fingered typing on a mobile phone keypad, knowing perfectly well not only how to spell plumber and find but the difference between a question and a statement. Most of us probably commit similar howlers.

But often enough, serious mistakes of spelling and grammar are made by educated people without the excuse of needing to dash off a message.

My wife is French. Her command of English on arrival in the UK as an au pair was good rather than exceptional. Yet she found herself embarrassed, as a secretary, to have to correct the shortcomings of her bosses with their native language. As her confidence grew, it became a hobbyhorse. A newspaper later published a letter in which she complained about our daughter’s geography teacher being unable to spell itinerary.

More recently, a clever young London lawyer sent me a draft letter, at what I fear will turn out to be great expense, that betrayed ignorance of the different usages of effect and affect.

A close friend, a teacher who generally writes beautifully, routinely misplaces or overlooks apostrophes. Here I need to be careful, since American English permits, for example, the 1980’s for the decade. However, my friend forfeits benefit of doubt by also confusing it’s and its.

But does it really matter? If the principal objective of effective communication is to be understood, grammatical rectitude and elegance may be mere bonuses.

I suspect the apostrophe will eventually be discarded altogether and I am not sure it will be greatly missed except by the sort of pedant who defaces an incorrect public sign.

If we are honest, most of us would admit to our own blind spots. It took me years to be cured of writing hoards when I meant hordes. Not every court reporter of my acquaintance realised that antecedents and not antecedence referred to a defendant’s record. At least the British boxer Brian London had an excuse – all that pounding to his head – for saying in an interview he was “only a prawn in the game”.

There is academic support for the relaxation of old rules. Simon Horobin, an Oxford professor of English who turned the question Does Spelling Matter? into a book title, cites a body called the English Spelling Society.

Far from campaigning for correct spelling, as the name seems to imply, it lobbies for wholesale simplification of language, the acceptance of such variants as thru and lite and an end to distinctions between they’re, their and there.

Conservative politicians expressed horror at the idea and Michael Gove, then education minister, published a parliamentary document that included a list of 162 words children should master by the age of 11.

Sadly, the initiative was undermined when the document was found to contain glaring errors of its own. It is, says Prof Horobin, a golden rule of orthography: before criticising someone else’s spelling, make sure your own is up to scratch.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National

Updated: July 25, 2015 04:00 AM