Write in Style: A Guide to Good English

By Richard Palmer | Go to book overview

23

SPELLING AND CONFUSIBLES


Introduction

In the various sections on punctuation, I have pointed out that while the skills involved may be intricate and difficult to master, they have the great advantage of being underpinned by 'rules'-rules to which there are no exceptions and which can be trusted. Teachers, or instructional books such as this, are thus able to concentrate on the principles of punctuation, knowing that they are watertight and that once their conceptual reasoning is grasped, comfort and accuracy should usually follow.

It goes without saying-or at least I hope it does-that spelling is important. But in my judgment there are serious limits to how far it can be taught, either in a classroom or via a book. Unlike punctuation, English spelling is not systematic in any comfortable sense. There are various 'rules', of course, and only an idiot would say they are not worth bothering with. But there are exceptions to nearly every one yet devised; furthermore, many instances of English spelling are as near to irrational as makes no difference.

Frankly, spelling has to be learnt-learnt privately and often one word at a time. I have yet to meet anyone whose spelling is infallible; I know my own certainly isn't! There are still words I have to look up or at any rate check, and there are others I have to think hard about before writing them down. Moreover, ever since I was in junior school, I have found that arriving at the happy state of spelling a word with automatic accuracy is often achieved only by getting it wrong several times first. Such a process of 'trial and error', or of learning from one's mistakes, may be a slow and painful one, but I'm convinced it characterizes the successful speller more than the inculcation of 'rules'.

Naturally, all that is very much a matter of opinion. If you require a detailed guide to the principles and practices of English spelling, there are plenty of useful ones about: I would especially recommend Michael Temple's Spell It Right [John Murray, 1985], and others are listed in the

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