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The little things

By Valerie Yule - posted Monday, 6 May 2013

(For want of a nail . . . the kingdom was lost)

We talk of Big Things, but so many little things cause a great difference. Bugs so small a microscope can hardly see them, kill millions daily. Plastic bags, so small, but in their millions fill oceans and kill the wild-life. "Um" is such a little word, but makes women sound inadequate. (Two women stopped saying "um" very quickly after I showed them my clip-board count of their defect when they were making public speeches. It made a tremendous difference to their careers, and both became eminent in Australian politics. One had said "um" 81 times in 20 minutes. Now, she says none.)

Another small thing causes injustice and huge waste of talent, when the disadvantaged, dislexic and forin-born face barriers that need not be. Consider the personal suffering, the economic cost to society, and the wasted hours in school when children fail to learn those small things, unnecessarily difficult spellings, through social disadvantage, dyslexic difficulties, or their foreign background. The 6% of unnecessary letters, and the 4% of misleading letters are barriers that even clever peple may face in spelling. (Can u spell? The best of us may not be perfect.)


Most people who are literate have learned spelling easily or have forgotten that even they had a struggle. Most literat people do not consider the injustice of which I write, and which my experience as a schools and hospital psychologist and teacher has burned me up, when I found how unnecessary it was.

Many eminent peple, including Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, Bernard Shaw, lexicografers & inventors of modern communications like Asimov (science fiction) and J V Atasanoff (computers) have seen the problem, but most have tried to cure the problem of English spelling by radical change. That is impossible for many reasons. Few peple will change their spelling sistem for something that looks novel and odd.

Other languages hav updated their writing sistems and do not hav our problem. Even Chinese and Japanese hav easy spellings as an introduction to lerners to mor difficult systems. Spanish, German, Dutch, Indonesian – all ar esier to read and write. (Writing systems and how they change, V.Yule, 2013, Bookpal, ISBN #9781742842073)

For many reasons Americans and English hav not updated their spelling systems exept for a word here and there. For exampl, DAEMON, OECONOMY and PHANTASY in the past 100 years hav become DEMON, ECONOMY and FANTASY. Now spellcheckers help those who can read to spell 'correctly'. But what of those who cannot? Spellcheckers could include updatings.

Pepl beleve meny untrue assumptions. Challenge all assumptions. The flurishing of texting shows how people can spell. But texting is tricky for everyone to link to our traditional spelling.

Our academics now prove that English spelling has problems and they explor the problems of those who cannot lern literacy. But they still fail to investigate how spelling could be updated, like other modern languages, to help the disadvantaged, and cut the time in education spent teaching reading and spelling for children to be able to learn other things, including lerning by reading.


Books are still publishd claiming cultural advantages for difficult spelling. Simon Horobin's Does Spelling Matter, ( OUP 2013) , is widely reviewed, and its claims taken without investigation - for exampl, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle's statement that English spelling 'comes remarkably close to being . . .an optimal system' . This was made by them in one regard only, which results in similar spelling for vowels in word-families like NATION/NATIONALITY, DECISION/DECIDE. I have examind this one regard and even then there are caveats, like REASON/RATIONALITY, SUCCEED/SUCCESS. I have a letter (not email) from Noam Chomsky himself in which he regrets the generalised misuse of their statement, and says he is sympathetic to the idea of spelling reform, properly conducted. Nor need updating spelling lose any of our cultural heritage.

Spelling bees are all the rage in USA, and a current fuss is being made becaus some peple have the nerve to say that the good spellers should know what the werds mean, not just how to spell them! I think they should think how werds OUGHT (aut?) to be spelld ( e.g THYME = TIME, ACCOMMODATE = ACOMODATE. SCISSORS = SIZZERS, WEDNESDAY = WENSDAY?)

We hav meny werds alredy which ar homografs which ar no problem to us, e.g LIGHT and MEAN. Or spellers could state what the cultural heritage is in most of our difficult spellings - THEIR, WHO, HALF?

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Some resources

2011, Yule, Valerie 'Recent developments which affect spelling. On the possibility of removing the unnecessary difficulties in English spelling, while leaving the basic appearance of English print intact.English Today, 107, vol 27, No 3. Sept 2011, pp 62-67

1986. The design of spelling to meet needs & abilities.Harvard Educational Review. 56.3. 278 - 297. 

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About the Author

Valerie Yule is a writer and researcher on imagination, literacy and social issues.

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