'Ooh, I know this one!'
British spelling is in decline. What can be done? The BBC's answer is Hard Spell, a nationwide spelling test involving 100,000 children. We, however, asked Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics, to devise a test using 10 simple but problematic English words - then put five people with a professional interest in spelling through it. Stuart Jeffries introduces the results
Thursday November 18, 2004
Does spelling really matter? As Molesworth might have observed, any fule kno it don't. Tony Blair wrote "toomorrow" three times in a memo, Keats once spelled fruit as "furuit", Yeats wrote peculiarities as "peculeraritys", and Hemingway wrote professional as "proffessional". Clearly such mistakes may not help you to be topp in skool, but they don't signify that you are unfit to write great literature or run the world's fourth largest industrial power.
It is true that US vice-president Dan Quayle spelled potato as "potatoe" and David Beckham has a tattoo on his arm in Hindi that misspells his wife's name, but these facts merely add to a general pre-existing picture of the two men being a few letters short of an alphabet, rather than being essential for the argument that each is as dumb as a bag of hair. That said, the person responsible for putting up a banner over a motor-racing track with the word "Finnish" probably wasn't trying to draw attention to the ethnicity of one of the drivers, but inadvertently disclosing their orthographical ineptitude. As was the person who carefully painted the huge letters "SOTP" on the road at a junction. Have any of the above taken the words of AE Housman to heart? Probably not. "Accuracy is a duty," wrote the poet, "not a virtue."
In September, it was reported that seven Scottish universities are providing students with remedial classes in basic English, including spelling. And last year ScottishPower criticised universities for producing graduates who cannot spell.
The government thinks that spelling is important too and, Blairite infelicities notwithstanding, has tried to do something to improve standards. Its 1998 National Literacy Strategy encouraged primary schools to develop "starter activities" such as spelling tests for an hour a day. The literacy hour has been extended to 11- to 14-year-olds. Last month, Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, presented a report proposing to replace GCSEs and A-levels with a diploma system "guaranteeing" employers and universities that all students have achieved good standards of literacy and numeracy.
What more can be done? It is, as you will know, National Scrabble Week, a time when we should listen to special pleading on behalf of the greatest spelling game ever committed to plastic tiles. Jackie McLeod of the Association of British Scrabble Players says: "Full marks to Charles Clarke, who wants to give chess a higher profile in schools to encourage the development of logic and problem-solving skills. However, I would maintain that Scrabble has even greater educational potential. It helps a child with spelling, extends vocabulary, develops mental agility, and instils an interest in language and the meaning and derivation of words. It entails addition and multiplication when calculating the scores, and develops powers of concentration and game strategy." She says Scrabble should be on the national curriculum.
Good idea, perhaps, but - with all due respect to the board game's aficionados - Scrabble is not yet sexy. Nude Scrabble might (or might not) help. Fortunately, another move is afoot to lure wayward youngsters into orthographical orthodoxy. Some bright spark at the BBC has decided to harness the power of Pop Idol-style telly to make a series called Hard Spell, a show that capitalises on the success of Spellbound, the film about US spelling bees. The idea is to find - please God, no - the Will Young of spelling. People are already calling it Swot Idol which, you have to admit, is indubitably oxymoronic. Let's ignore the fact that only last month ITV ran something called The Great British Spelling Test, and Channel Five has a show involving spelling tests called Brain Teaser.
During the summer, 100,000 11- to 14-year-olds took part in Hard Spell's regional heats. Now five of the best from 10 regions are to spell themselves into our hearts. Let's hope that they are all of a Housmanian rather than a Jacksonian bent. It was US President Andrew Jackson, you'll recall, who said: "It is a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word." The fule.
The bumf for the series asks: "Can you spell with speed, accuracy and under pressure?" This is a question to which we wanted answers. We urged Professor Vivian Cook, professor of applied linguistics at the University of Newcastle and author of Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary or Why Can't Anybody Spell?, to supply us with 10 of the most orthographically problematic words in the English language. We then rang likely people to find out if they could spell all of them correctly. Sadly, a high proportion of them either did not reply or got someone to ring and say they were very busy - far, far too busy in fact, to take the test. Or maybe just scared.
Ben Schott, author of Schott's Original Miscellany, declined. David Butler, chief executive of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, which has endorsed the series, did not reply. The Oxford English Dictionary and the Plain English Campaign, which were invited to put up representatives, have yet to return our calls. The winner of ITV's Great British Spelling Test has yet to present their credentials. Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves is on tour in the US and thus unavailable. John Humphrys, author of Lost for Words: the Use and Abuse of the English Language, couldn't take the test "because he's writing for the Times and is slightly grumpy". Carol Vorderman, co-presenter of Countdown, declined to favour us with the relevant vowels and consonants. Nor was Richard Whiteley, Carol's ankle bracelet, available. The list of declinees goes on.
In this context, praise is due to schools minister Stephen Twigg, another champion of Hard Spell, who called from his car to take the test.
"I shouldn't have taken it," he said after he spelled five out of 10 words correctly. "That was the advice I was given. But I thought I should because I think I'm a really good speller. Oh God!" Piquantly, he spelled "embarrass" wrongly. "And I looked that up on a spell checker yesterday!" But it ill behoves the Grauniad to cast aspersions - if, indeed, that's how you spell the word. So we won't.
· Hard Spell starts on BBC1 on November 29