Hate Bad Spelling?

Are you fed up of bad spelling and grammar? Nick Adams is. Here, he gives us an orthographic history lesson, shares some thoughts on today’s grammatical problems and tells us some of his fears for the future.

Last year, I began frequenting a cafe just opposite Tokyo MidTown with my wife. The cafe in question happens to stock a fair number of English newspapers, including international versions of US papers and some of the Japanese offerings in English.

A few weeks ago, after encouragement from my wife, I started reading them. Much to my surprise, I found them riddled with mistakes! “Report” spelled as “repor” on the front page of one, the fictional tense “was been drived” in another and all frequently featured use of the Oxford comma – a crutch invented for the grammatically handicapped.

Eye have a spelling chequer,
It came with my Pea Sea.

It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss Steaks I can knot sea.

Eye strike the quays and type a whirred
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am write oar wrong
It tells me straight a weigh.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your shore real glad two no.
Its vary polished in its weigh.
My chequer tolled me sew.

A chequer is a bless thing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right all stiles of righting,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The chequer pours o’er every word
Two cheque sum spelling rule.

The spell checker, or spelling validator as it was then, celebrates its 55th birthday this year and its sibling, the grammar checker, is now in its 40s. Despite nearly a century of development between them, few are able to spot all the mistakes in the above poem originally written by Jerrold H. Zar in 1992. Not that that seems to matter any more.

Over the last few decades, the English language has enjoyed a plethora of colloquialisms becoming mainstream vocabulary and some eventually entering dictionaries, thus rendering them official. If we wind the clock back twenty years or so, how many mails were you shooting? How many people’s bases were you touching? How many people had you owned? If you are anything like me, very few, I would imagine.

Diversification of the language is not necessarily a bad thing. British English and American English sometimes have simple reasons for their differences. One of my favourite differences is aluminium vs aluminum. At a time when very little of it was entering the US, a certain Irish clerk, whose job was to catalogue invoices and deliveries, misspelt it without the last “i”. Along the delivery line, people copied the spelling, letter for letter, into their ledgers and, over time, the practically national misspelling stuck. Ironically, had a spell checker existed back then, aluminium might be spelled the same world wide.

In the 1900s mistakes in relatively new words, such as the above, were, to a degree, excusable but now we have been given the power of technology to assist us, can we afford to let blunders like this go? For informal writing, especially those with crippling character limits such as SMS and Twitter, I believe that we have little option if you have anything of interest that you wish to cram into such a tiny space. When it comes to company email, both internal and, to a large extent, external email rarely seem to see a spell checker these days. Of course, in the modern world, the speed of communication is often critical to the business and a typo filled email that conveys an important message right on time is perfectly acceptable.

Spelling check at Burger King

So where should we pay attention to spelling, punctuation and grammar? From searching the internet, there seem to be three places.

1. In an official letter, especially one such as a legal statement. If you are not careful, lawyers can have a field day bending your words to mean something else through advanced grammatical interpretation.

2. When applying for a job. Most employers claim to discard job applications after finding the second mistake and this is, apparently, one of the most common reasons for rejection.

3. When it is your job! Professional writers, journalists and English teachers all have to deal with language on a daily basis so one would assume they should know what they are doing.

What are we to do? Social media prevents people from getting it right, work pressures prevent people from getting it right, the existence of lawyers debating meaning shows us people are failing to get it right, the fact mistakes in job applications cause high numbers rejections shows that people are failing to get it right and as the above demonstrates, even professionals are failing to get it right.

The sheer length of my previous sentence shows that I too fail to get it right. There is a saying that “language is merely a tool” and another that “a man is only as sharp as his tools”. I fear that at the current rate, in only a generation or two, many people would have trouble cutting soft butter with theirs.

Nicholas Adams

  1. Nick, spelling is essentially a choice as there are so many regional varieties from which to choose. Incorrect spelling on the other hand, is a horse of a different color. The manner of aluminum being absorbed into the American mainstream as you present it, is slightly erroneous.
    Looking briefly into the etymology of the word itself, it was coined by Sir Humphrey Davy, who took it from Joseph Black in 1790. The French had given the word to the aforementioned English chemists, as the French had used it since records began in that part of Europe to name the white mineral alum. But they had borrowed it from Pliny, who had referenced records on the Greek island of Lesbos which attest to the production of alumen, slightly related to alum. Oh, and the Egyptians had named it for thousands of years. And the Indians.
    Davy, by all accounts was not too good at the spelling himself. He first spelt it alumium (1807) then aluminum, and finally aluminium (1812). Although aluminum was closest to its original Latin root, aluminium sounded more ‘sciencey’ at the time; the –ium ending echoing the like-monikered potassium, sodium, and magnesium. A centruy earlier, it would almost certainly have been aluminum to correspond with platinum, molybdenum and tantalum.
    Aluminum was used in Britain for a while, before aluminium became the standard there. By 1828 in America, Webster’s dictionary only used aluminum but chemists used aluminium. Aluminium was the version of choice in The Century Dictionary (1889) and the only spelling in the Webster Unabridged Dictionary of 1913. Archival searches in American newspapers show that up to the 1890s, the –ium version was more common. After about 1895 there is a reverse starting in 1900 with the –um spelling about twice as common as the -ium version. Little by little the -um version crept in and by 1910, instances had doubled to that of the -um version. The official change in the US to the –um spelling came in 1925 when the American Chemical Society officially adopted it and it went into circulation the following year.
    Charles Martin Hall was the dominant producer of aluminum in America and used the -ium spelling consistently in every single patent he filed between 1886 and 1903. The -um spelling was used in an advertising handbill for his new electrolytic method of producing the metal in 1892. But there can be no ‘typo’ attributed to the poor, hard-working Irish clerk you mention as it was a mere matter of choice as to which version of the spelling was used and both were perfectly acceptable and in equal use at the time. It was Hall’s domination of the market for large-scale industrial use of aluminum and widespread distribution of the press which set in motion the standard for the the -um spelling in North America. In spite of this, the Webster Unabridged Dictionary (1913) continued to use the -ium version.
    So, it wasn’t a misspelling but can be seen as a matter of choice, and anyone consulting the dictionary (the spellcheckers of the time) would still have been met with the -ium version. Somehow it jumped on a populist bandwagon and became the standard version.

  2. Dear Mickey,
    Thank you for your fascinating insight on the history of the word aluminium/aluminum. I admit that I included the story as an anecdote rather than as the main focus of the article and as such may have oversimplified some of the details. However, I am very pleased that you picked up on this. It proves that there are still a few people out there who care enough to attempt to preserve and share knowledge rather than just allowing the ignorant masses to trample blindly past in their usual manner which is, sadly, becoming the rule rather than the exception.

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