Feb 242013
 

There are many things that I can’t do. I can’t play pool (the angles confound me). I can’t go near spiders. I can’t reach things on top shelves. I can’t get a note out of a flute. I can’t whistle. I can’t swim underwater. I can’t tell right from left.

But there is one thing that I can do better than practically anybody else I know. I can spell.

Now, I’m not saying that I can always type, or even write. ‘Teh’ for ‘the’ is a common error for me, as is ‘ang’ for ‘and’. But I know they are errors, and when I see them I can fix them. Genuine spelling mistakes, of the kind that survive a harsh edit because I really think that’s the way a word is spelled, are rare.

jeans labelWhich is why, when I saw this label on a pair of jeans I was trying on in a well-known high street store, I had to take a picture, if only to prove to myself that I wasn’t imagining things. I am filled with sorrow for the human race when simple words cannot even be spelled correctly on items that are mass-produced and where, frankly, it is hugely embarrassing for a company if they are wrong.

And if only it really were that simple, but if life teaches us anything it is that nothing is ever simple. Different countries have different spelling. The obvious example is British and American English, but Canadian and Australian Englishes combine elements of both, and add a few quirks of their own besides. When reading American English I have my eye fairly well in to accept ‘color’ and ‘center’ but ‘jewelry’ and ‘traveled’ still make me double-take. There just aren’t enough letters in them.

Then there are the words that genuinely have alternative spellings. The most obvious for-instance is the past tense of ‘spell’ itself. In American English ‘spelled’ is preferred, full stop (or perhaps more appropriately, period). In British English ‘spelt’ is an acceptable alternative, with usage of each form being about equal. Knowing that ‘spelt’ is also a kind of wheat, I personally prefer ‘spelled’. Other verbs taking that past tense form, such as ‘lean’, ‘learn’ and ‘burn’, follow a similar pattern, transatlantically speaking.

Finally and most crucially, the simple fact remains that spelling, like English itself, changes. It evolves. Dictatorial lexicographers are not the primary influence on our spelling, for that honour must be accorded to crowd-sourced consensus. The correct spelling of ‘cat’ is C-A-T because everybody agrees that it shall be so, and if they change their minds then the spelling of ‘cat’ will likewise change.

That hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, dear high-street-clothing-shop-who-shall-not-be-named, please repeat after me. S-E-P-A-R-A-T-E-L-Y. Oh, and a full stop should have a space after it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to proof-read the life out of this post.