Does Spelling Matter?

In light of the recent publication Does Spelling Matter? by Magdalen College English professor Simon HorobinThe Oxford Student thought we’d have a go at answering that question ourselves.

Be sure to let us know what you think in the comments section at the bottom of the article.


Many of us will agree with James J. Kilpatrick that “spelling is one of the outward and visible marks of a disciplined mind.” There are, of course, many arguments to be made for the importance of spelling. We can assert that ‘proper’ spelling — dictionary spelling — makes for linguistic clarity, that it allows us to grasp words’ meanings  so that we can then ponder the implications of those meanings. Alternative spellings are a distraction; they draw our attention away from the very meanings that language was created to convey.

Scarcely anyone would claim that there is any intrinsic significance in the way words are spelled. The particular spellings we have adopted in our modern English are more or less arbitrary. We read in the dictionary that the word “coffee” was derived from the Italian “caffe”, which was derived from the Turkish “kahveh”, which was in turn derived from the Arabic “qahwah”,  or perhaps even the Ethiopean region of Kaffa.

Every word has a history which makes certain spellings more etymologically justified than others, but the biographies of words are just as arbitrary as their present spellings. It does not matter how many f’s or e’s we decide to spell “coffee” with; what matters is that there is a consensus among readers and writers as to how the word should be spelled. One of the reasons Johnson decided to write his famous dictionary was his realisation that, with the English language evolving so quickly, the literatures of one generation were destined to become unintelligible to succeeding generations. The changes the English language underwent during the 13th and 14th centuries — when English was a welter of Germanic dialects absorbing Latinate rhythms and words from French — were immense. It was in a state of perpetual transformation.

Spelling takes on new significance when we consider it in this broader historical sense. Think how many writings — literary and historical — have been made inaccessible to us in their original forms because of the changes wrought on our language over time. Consider the enormous number of “modern translations” in extant of our Old and Middle English texts. Many are bold enough to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original, but even the boldest depend on lengthy scholarly notes to decipher precisely what is meant. And let’s not even get started on Beowulf


Mark Twain once said: “I don’t give a damn for a man who can only spell a word one way.” For Twain, spelling was a form of personal expression; it was a creative act. “We might as well make all clothes alike and cook all dishes alike,” he said. “Sameness is tiring, variety is pleasing.”

Twain would probably have appreciated the whimsical spellings of Chaucer and other medieval English poets. In an age when there was no consensus on spelling, long before the Oxford English Dictionary  and when oral tradition prevailed, Chaucer was free to spell the same word several different ways, even on the same page. In the twelfth line of the Canterbury Tales prologue he spells “pilgrimage” the way we do today; in the twenty-first line, he spells it “pilgrymage.” Similar cases abound in his works.

While it may be true that standardised spelling makes it easier for us to understand the writings of both our contemporaries and our predecessors, it is also true that formalising the spelling of English words can detract from the richness and diversity of our language. Spelling in present-day French language is typically strictly regulated, less amenable to the constant adaptations that shape modern English. Some may argue that language is made poorer by the refusal to embrace changes that define our time and place in history. Surely language should not be fossilised, and although it may be exceedingly difficult to understand Beowulf and Gawain in the original, we cannot deny that there is a certain beauty (and, of course, historical significance) in the droll spellings and melodic cadences of both works.

Whether spelling matters, then, raises a more fundamental question about our language. Which is more important: allowing language the freedom to evolve and be adapted to the peculiarities of different eras, even if it means that the productions of that era will inevitably become unintelligible to us? Or stamping all words with a common form to preserve a unified and intelligible body of writings throughout the ages? Should we be willing to incorporate into our dictionaries the ever-increasing body of slang and neologisms to which twenty-first century technologies have given rise (gotta go, c u later, brb). If so, will such words be meaningless to future generations? If not, we are denying ourselves the fullest expression of our age.

It is a problem not easily overcome, but one that leads us to consider the things that we value most in our language.

PHOTOS/turonistan, happyplace, juice2