A succession of nuns at the dreary Catholic schools to which I was sent, told me that I would never succeed in life if I could not spell. As I recall, this pleasant method of encouragement started in my sixth year of age. And when, against all expectation, I passed the ‘eleven plus’ examination, and became one of only three in a class of thirty to go to the local Catholic Grammar School, my class teacher, sister Anton, told me time out of number that my inability to spell would have me knocking on the door of the senior school any time soon, having been thrown out of the grammar school.
I have commented on my time at Gunnersbury elsewhere; one of the things that did not happen to me there, was being thrown out because I could not spell. I was, of course, politely asked to leave following my spectacular success in passing just one ‘O’ level.
In a way though, the nuns were right. Spelling has been my personal nemesis and I am paranoid about spelling mistakes creeping into this blog. Spell-checking in word-processing is a boon, but is by no means infallible and creates bear-traps for the unwary. The words ‘dammed’ and ‘damned’ are both correctly spelt (or should that be that spelled?), but mean entirely different things. Both ‘spelt’ and ‘spelled’ are correct in English English by the way, although the American spell-checker on this website insists that 'spelt' is not correct. Then there is the s vs z problem. Is it ‘civilize’ or ‘civilise’? ‘Realize’ or ‘realise’? ‘Customize’ or ‘customise’? And so on. Many people think that the ‘z’ version is American spelling; it is, but it is also the preferred English spelling as the OED will confirm, although both versions are correct. Then there are the words like ‘license’ and ‘licence’, ‘practise’ and ‘practice’, where the meaning is similar, but the one with an ‘s’ is the verb form, the other, with a ‘c’, is a noun. The list is endless.
Many people, I am sure, will dismiss all of this paranoia as the result of stupidity, a poor education or both. Perhaps so, but it remains an on-going problem for me. At grammar school, English masters would yell at me, ‘If you don’t know how to spell it boy, look it up in the dictionary!’ Quite so, but there are many words that cannot be found in the dictionary if you do not know how to spell them…
But help is at hand, I have found recently that if I am really stuck with a word and the spell-checker can’t help, Google is a wonderful resource of last resort. Its clever search engine works with really mangled, almost unintelligible groups of letters.
There is also assistance from an entirely unexpected direction. Many people bemoan ubiquitous texting on mobile telephones as debasing the English language with some of the more ghastly shorthand that tends to be used. But actually, a mobile ‘phone set to predictive text mode has the correct spelling of words built in… Admittedly the first few letters need to be right, but given that, predictive text spells words correctly. It has got me out of a jam on several occasions…
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs