October 30, 2010

Jane Austen couldn't spell

So Jane Austen couldn't spell. Spelling is an odd issue. Several people today believe they have the right to regulate and to be infuriated about how others spell. For some it is testament to the march of radicalism and the end of reading itself, this is bizarre. Spelling became important in the eighteenth century when the first dictionaries were published. Grammar became important at the same time as part of an effort to latinise English, to give it a formal structure and rules. Its not true that earlier writers couldn't spell or were not interested in those rules, but many of them included varient spellings and many of them did not write in what we would consider correct grammar. Austen was apparantly one of them- Oliver Cromwell incidentally, a fine styllist, was another. The idea that this, as Heffer argues, made either of them a lesser thinker is ludicrous: Heffer himself is not that great a thinker when compared to either Austen or Cromwell. One of the worst spellers and grammarians I know is currently coming to the end of his Oxford PhD!

So what is the point of grammatical correctness? I think it has two points: one is useful, the other baleful. Curiously it is most useful in education. It is useful, for the same reasons as lists of great books, because it creates access to language. Without grammar a kid starting off her education in language and their structures has no structure to grasp. I learnt to read literature by devouring the Penguin Classics: if Penguin and Everyman are the mothers of literary autodidacts, then grammar and spelling are the fathers of linguistic autodidacts. Autodidactism is something we should encourage. The second unimpressive use for correct grammar and spelling is the use to which Heffer and Truss put it. What they are interested in is putting down others, feeling superior and generally ignoring someone else's point because of a misplaced apostrophe. Its the equivalent of school kids in a playground laughing at someone because they wear glasses, and forgetting that he or she can explain something better than they can. A reverence for form is joined here to a contempt for substance: one of the blessed things puritanism has taught me is that the latter is much more important than the former.

Who cares whether something is spelt correctly or where the commas are, so long as the ideas expressed are important or right. Simon Heffer argues that bad spelling implies someone is a bad logician and so rejects any applications he sees for a job on that basis: I'd argue that looking at someone's spelling before their logic suggests Mr Heffer needs to learn a little more about logic!


James Hamilton said...

"Autodidactism is something we should encourage." Yes: this is something I agree with passionately. And in that spirit:
"its not true.." should read "it's not true.."
"varient" should read "variant"
"apparantly" should read "apparently"
"styllist" should read "stylist"


"its the equivalent of school kids.." should read "it's the equivalent of school kids.."

And if that's to bracket you with Jane Austen, I'd be delighted to do so. Marvellous, humane post.

Gracchi said...

And I wish I'd just included all of that to piss off Heffer et al!! :)

Claude said...

You've done this before, Sir (or Docteur Gracchi)! I never dared to point it out to you. My French background stops me from being sure of other people's misspellings or grammatical errors. And your text is always so fascinating to read. May God protect me from boring perfection in myself, and others! À votre santé, Mylord!

Gracchi said...

Claude my spelling is atrocious- actually I'm not the PhD student from Oxford who I mentioned, but I'm almost as bad and yes I've got one from Cambridge!!

James Higham said...

Spelling is very much a problem for many. And there are three situations - right, not bad- at least you followed some rules, just not the right ones and awful.

Someone who writes nasion is not that far wrong.

goodbanker said...

Haven't you allowed Heffer et al to dictate the terms on which you have blogged here? Of course they are wrong when they assert that there is necessarily a strong correlation between grammatical / spelling accuracy on the one hand, and intelligence on the other. Surely the real issue is in terms of the correlation between good grammar / spelling and the ability to communicate? You could have the most intelligent person in the world, but in certain circumstances, that person would fail to communicate if their grammar / spelling wasn't up to scratch.

Take the following hypothetical scenario to illustrate the importance of good grammar for communication: the Einstein of the 21st century is working for British intelligence (OK, I did say it was hypothetical!); through his incredible brain power, this Einstein-agent decrypts a message that reliably indicates the number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are on a particular stretch of road in Afghanistan; he immediately sends a message to the sapper working on that stretch of road, but (because of C21 Einstein's poor grammar) it reads: "There are one IEDs on the road to Helmand." What should the sapper do with this information? Does he assume that the road is clear once he has located his first IED?!

What about this hypothetical example in spelling space: the Chief Medical Officer reaches a conclusion about whether the use of a particular drug should be used by GPs. His decision is published in the British Medical Journal, and is eagerly awaited by GPs. The journalist who is writing up the decision happens to be poor at spelling. The crucial sentence reads: "The Chief Medical Officer recommends that GPs proscribe use of drug X in the treatment of disease Y." What should the GPs do with this: do they forbid the use of drug X? Or did the journalist in fact mean to write "prescribe"?!

In conclusion, you ask: "who cares whether something is spelt correctly or where the commas are, so long as the ideas expressed are important or right." My challenge to this would be to say that poor grammar and spelling doesn't bother me, until it impedes communication - at that point it can become critical. So, the "ideas expressed" need to be not only "important" and "right" (n.b. not "or" - else they could be right but not important; or, worse still, important but not right!); they need to be expressed in a way that can be understood.

p.s. sorry not to have been in touch for a while; I imagine, based on my comment above, you're probably quite grateful I've not dropped in on your blog since ?2009. It is very nice to see it going so strongly still!

Gracchi said...

Ok Goodbanker- I thinkt he last bit of this was the most inaccurate- its good to see you back here and you are always welcome, especially with comments like the above.

I think you are right and wrong. Yes you are obviously right that when grammar obstructs sense it means that something is lost and that is important. So for example if I wrote a series of incoherent words down it would matter because even if they encoded for me a wonderful idea, they would not do so for you.

However I think the problem comes when grammar ceases to be about communication and starts becoming about ettiquette. Its the ettiquette aspect of grammar that I see as pernicious rather than the aspect which sees grammar as a means of conveying meaning. If someone knows what someone else is saying but exclaims in disgust about the grammar, then I think they don't understand the meaning of why grammar is there.

You bring out the essential point I think: grammar and spelling are means to ends rather than ends. Once you treat them as ends themselves you have lost their point.