Why Would Someone’s Spelling Be Viewed as a Reflection of That Person’s Morality?

There is a lengthy tradition of associating falling standards of literacy with a decline in morality and standards of behavior. The assumption that lies behind such views is that a lack of respect for the rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation is symptomatic of a disrespect for other codes of social and moral behavior.

In the 1980s, a move away from formal grammar teaching in schools was cited by some social commentators as the trigger for a widespread disregard for honesty and responsibility among young people. This is encapsulated in a speech by the British Conservative politician Norman Tebbit who famously argued that “if you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, where people turn up filthy at school … all those things tend to make people have no standards at all, and once you lose standards there’s no imperative to stay out of crime.”

The desire to connect poor spelling and grammar with antisocial behavior is, of course, entirely bogus and stems from a nostalgia for a mythical golden age when young people were obedient to all forms of moral, social, and orthographical authority.

Simon Horobin is a professor of English language and literature at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford and the author of the new book Does Spelling Matter?.

Category: Q&A


5 Responses

  1. Allan Campbell says:

    If a “lack of respect for the rules of spelling is symptomatic of a disrespect for other social codes of behavior”, then we ar (sic) all guilty as charged.

    Our “correct” traditional spelling (TS) is world famous for its breaking of spelling rules.

    We all use it. We could therefor become mor “moral” by advocating that we follow the rules, and at least trying to do so, as i am doing here by omitting “silent e” from words that dont need it.

  2. Masha Bell says:

    I agree with Allan C.

    What I find immoral is the insistence that children must learn to spell in irrational ways which are extremely time-consuming and cause many logical ‘misspellings’. If we all spelt with closer adherence to basic English patterns, fewer children and adults would commit spelling errors and educational failure would become less frequent too. Inability to read and write has many unfortunate consequences.

  3. NJH says:

    What are the rules here and is this anything to do with morality or is it just bad (but standard) spelling? Respect has to be earned . . . and with the English spelling system it has not earned it.

    Boot – foot
    Cow – crow
    Great – treat – treat.
    Blue, to, through, flu, shoe.
    Cloud, touch, your, bought, group, sound.
    Home – come, , done – love, have – save.
    Shall – all
    Horrid – florid.
    Copy – poppy.
    Galley – palace, salad – ballad, melon – mellow, money – runny, body – muddy.
    Friend – build – door

  4. I’m thinking about this issue from the point of view of us as intelligent social animals who like to bond quickly with those who are like us but who also react very suspiciously to unfamiliar others. The usefulness of spelling for such a species is that it is a very fine-tuned measure for acceptance or suspicion. It requires the mastery of many details over many years, it demands acceptable standards of hearing, vision, hand-movement, and memory, and it provides a written record that can be retained and confirmed by others. It’s hard to imagine a better “passport” for a social elite in an educated society.

  5. Allan Campbell says:

    Brock: Fine-tuned? Mor like a screech.

    The function of spelling is not to be a “measure for acceptance or suspicion”. Its function is to make literacy learning easy and possible for everyone. Ours doesnt do that.

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