Simon Horobin of Magdalen College, Oxford was this week said to have prompted shocked gasps from an audience at the annual Hay-on-Wye literary festival in western England by suggesting that spellings of they’re, their and there could be standardized.
Spelling pedants should also be more relaxed about changes in standards of written English that have seen the adoption of spellings such as “thru” and “lite.”
Sound familiar? In March, Rendezvous reported on a grammar war that had broken out over the decision of an English council to ban the apostrophe from its local street signs.
Traditionalists have also lamented the growing use of SMS slang, which they fear is creeping into the classroom.
Mr. Horobin’s intervention comes at a time when the British government is introducing changes to the national school curriculum to include a list of 162 words that all 11-year-olds would be expected to spell.
He pointed out that the draft law announcing the reform managed to spell “bureaucracy” incorrectly.
The Oxford academic and spelling blogger, whose latest book is “Does Spelling Matter?”, said he was not proposing a spelling free-for-all but was inviting people to accept that spellings change.
“People like to artificially constrain language change,” he said this week. “For some reason we think spelling should be entirely fixed and never changed.”
Mr. Horobin has traced the evolution of a language that is derived from various origins and has undergone changes through the addition of foreign terms and shifts in pronunciation. Silent letters that were once pronounced survive in spellings such as “knight” and “through”.
He does not argue for wholesale spelling reform but rather for less rigidity on the part of the “grammar police.”
Above all, he argues that knowledge of standard spelling should not be confused with intelligence.
Simon Heffer, a newspaper columnist, agreed with him. “We all know some truly bovine people who can spell perfectly and some allegedly brilliant ones who can’t,” he wrote in a review of Mr. Horobin’s book.
Mr. Heffer said the advice of the “anything goes” school of grammar and spelling — he did not include Mr. Horobin in that category — was fine “until one has to write a job application that will be read by someone with more traditional views.”