Let me spell it out for you

If I have to blame anything, it would be my education. As part of the pre-comprehensive system, I failed my 11plus and so went to a secondary school and not a grammar school; my education was based on the accumulation of knowledge rather than its appreciation or use – which brings me to spelling. I could spell reasonably well; I came from a household that was full of the printed word; I read and I learned how to spell, which for me made school spelling tests a straightforward task. A weekly spelling lesson with the headmaster (note “headmaster” and not “headteacher”) required as homework a page of some 20 spellings to be learned for the following week. But I didn’t need to; I scanned the page and could always spell them all. There is of course a bad ending to this. Realising my spelling skills, the headmaster asked me not to spell words but recite the order in which they appeared on the page, which I could not do. Rebuked for not following orders, I was warned that I faced an uncertain future for having such a wanton disregard for authority. As a consequence, I am one of those people who reads the instructions on flat-pack furniture before I assemble it, even if I know how.

I became a printer and then owned a printing business, which brought me into contact with spelling styles that differed from my own. A nursery required “perennial plants” to be printed as “pre-annual plants” as they said pre-annual meant every year which they thought I should have known. A caterer required “vol-au-vents” to be printed “voller vonts” because they wanted it printed in English and not French. (Although not spelling related, I once had to print a hotel location map the wrong way round – London at the bottom, south coast at the top – “so our London customers won’t have to turn the map upside-down”.)

My school, after I left, became one of the new comprehensives, with its liberal 1960’s attitudes. Perhaps incorrect spelling was then described as “spelt differently” rather than “wrong.”


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