I have always been of the opinion that spelling should be tested separately, and not as part of a creative writing excercise, for example. Everyone should be quite clear about what is being marked. But for the majority of the debaters in the newsagent's shop there are no such qualms: "If they can't spell, knock off the marks!" seems to sum up the attitude. But of course, that is not how it works. You do not knock off the marks that you have given for, let us say, developing a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, you just don't give any marks for spelling in the first place. This means that if something (like spelling) is to be taken into consideration, then marks must be allocated for it, guidance given as to how those marks are to be awarded. Furthermore, those marks must be awarded if the criteria are met. After which, it is all down to the examiner's interpretation, just as the application of rules in football hangs, in the last resort, on the referee's interpretation of them. It does mean, though, that marks may be awarded (in this instance, for spelling) in circumstances in which it would seem to most people more appropriate not to award marks at all.
I was reminded again of this issue by a reference on the radio this week to Winston Churchill's own description of his attempt at a Latin prose paper, part of his entrance examination for Harrow: "I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question: "1." After much reflection I put a bracket round it. Thus:"(I)." But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle : and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. It is very much to his credit. It showed that he was a man capable of looking beneath the surface of things: a man not dependent upon paper manifestations. I have always had the greatest regard for him."
Strangely, next to the cry of "why can't youngsters spell, these day?", I would guess that the next most common "newsagent moan" (if we stick to those concerned with the English language) is concerned with what a nonsense our spelling system is and how it's a wonder any child ever masters it! Of course, it isn't a system at all: that's the whole point about it. It hasn't come down to us in any sort of pure form, but as a hybrid script, a coming together of Old English and Norman French. The incompatability of these two made it almost inevitable that there would be no coherent system, but then throw in (as they did) heavy lashings of Greek and Latin and confusion was the more confounded. And there was one other event of great importance, what has become known as The Great Vowel Shift. It affected the way words were pronounced (particularly in London and the South of England), and therefore it had great relevance to the way in which spelling related to the spoken word, the cause of so much anguish these days. It is not always remembered that the spoken word is primary, that spelling merely attempts to represent it in some visual form. Until the thirteenth century words were pronounced very much in the Italian or Liturgical Latin way, but from then on, and over the next four hundred years or so there came about a gradual increase in the height of the tongue and a tendency to push it further forward until Middle English speech had become our Modern English version. The rift between spoken and written had become even wider and the ground had been prepared for the many movements that would attempt to reform our spelling - and, indeed other aspects of our language.
I have concentrated on spelling, but the reverse side of the same coin is punctuation, for which much the same arguments and counter-arguments are raised, but which seems to me to be more important than spelling, though punctuation is perhaps more of an art than a science, whereas spelling is but a convention. There is a lot of talk about "correct punctuation" (in the media as well as in the newsagent's), but I doubt that such a thing exists beyond a very minimal framework. Give two or more professional writers - or two or more examiners, come to that - an unpunctuated script and I guarantee that they will all punctuate it differently.
I have long had a hankering to try for the form of punctuation that was in use until the eighteenth century. It was based upon the pauses for breath which occur in spoken English, and not, as in our current system, upon grammatical structure. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries punctuation was heavily applied, though today the vogue is for a lightness of touch. Even so, there are many variations with some authors using different styles for different purposes and various in-house preferences.
Many of the marks and terms we use these days derive from the Greek and originate from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at which time they were used to mark off sections of text, the comma and the colon being used to mark off sections in a line of verse. The use of the stop, even when grammatically correct, can imply a separation between sections of text that is not always appropriate, I feel. The voice, with its inflections and pauses is more flexible, as was punctuation when it was more closely related to these. Grammarians have much to answer for, maybe.
Here, to conclude, are a few thinking points:
- How many authors, professional writers and other such are overly concerned with spelling and correct punctuation when getting down the first draft (which an examination answer usually is)?
- For centuries the legal profession managed very well without punctuation of any sort, particularly in such documents as deeds and for conveyancing, considering that punctuation was the cause of much ambiguity. It is only since legal English has become established as the dominant international business language that this has changed. Punctuation has now established itself again in modern legalese.
- James Joyce's Ulysses has an almost complete lack of standard punctuation (being partly based upon the spoken word and partly on "stream-of-consciouness"?), yet despite also lacking the usual narrative flow, is as understandable as any piece of writing can be - for we might well debate whether any work of literature can be completely understandable.
- Is not the main consideration that the reader should be able to plug in to the author's intended (and, depending upon the nature of the writing, his unintended?) meanings?