Integrating commonly misspelled words

A lecturer1 has suggested that commonly misspelled words should be accepted as correct:

“The spelling of the word ‘judgement’, for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of ‘judgment’, so why can’t ‘truely’ be accepted as a variant spelling of ‘truly’?”

Mr Smith also suggested adding the word “misspelt” to the list and all those that break the “i before e” rule – weird, seize, neighbour and foreign.

Sounds pretty sensible to me. What does it matter? Plenty of words already have alternate spellings, and the ‘correct’ version of ‘judgment’ is arbitrary – it’s not like English is phonetic. Why not accept both?

What difference does it make, as long as the meaning is intact? I tend to think the language battles worth fighting are always over meaning2. The classic example is ‘disinterested’ being used as a synonym for ‘uninterested’. There’s a subtle, but important, difference, and I think this is worth bothering about – the loss of ‘disinterested’ is the loss of a word to describes a particular concept, and language as a whole is worse off. Using ‘wierd’ in addition to ‘weird’ loses nothing other than mild anxiety over whether you’ve remembered correctly.

Grammar’s similar. Some of it matters, some of it doesn’t. Possessive apostrophes are important, because meaning changes with their (lack of) use, although admittedly it takes some contriving: Kingsley Amis came up with “those things over there are my husbands”. So that’s important – breaking the ‘rules’ makes things less clear. But split infinitives, or endless arguments over the perfectly clear ‘you and me should go spelunking’? Pointless.

The only argument I can see is that ‘new’ spellings will make writing harder to parse, when reading. But I’d say this is pretty minor – the advantages far outweigh the temporary annoyance of linguistic breakpoints.

Having said all this, it’s not like there’s a Language Tsar we all worship. The Oxford English Dictionary can ‘allow’ variant spellings all it wants, and in-use-language will merrily fail to give a damn. But I suppose it’s referring to education – I can get behind the argument that it’s unfair to penalise people for spelling words wrongly, when the meaning is clearly intact.

In fact, now I think about it some more, hell yes. I’d imagine there’s a close-enough-is-good-enough policy for younger kids, but I bet it goes away. But if someone’s obviously trying to use the right word in a university-level essay, why should it matter if they spell it wrongly? I suppose there’s a balancing act between clarity and meaning, but maybe marking schemes should separate the two. If an essay takes twice as long to read, it’s reasonable to say it’s less effective than an identical paper with correct spellings. But since it is saying the same thing – and usually it’s the meaning that’s important – that should be recognised too.

I think I’d only be Minister of Education for a week. But what a week.

Update: vaguely related: why does English capitalise ‘I’? The NYT article is interesting, but then says:

So what effect has capitalizing “I” but not “you” — or any other pronoun — had on English speakers? It’s impossible to know, but perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot.

Gah. Are there any concepts which cannot be related to how much society supposedly sucks?

  1. in criminology, but whatever []
  2. and clarity, but that’s more stylistic []