Is our spelling really getting worse?

I read so many people bemoaning the fact that our spelling is getting worse. And most seem to blame technology. I'm not sure that our knowledge of spelling is getting worse and I don't think technology is solely to blame if it is.

The fact is that we write far more than we ever used to (and I think that's a good thing!). And also much of what we write is for public consumption. So of course mistakes are seen more. We are also ridiculously 'busy' with constant distractions, so the main problem seems to be that we don't take time to check what we've written. Even people who are complaining about other people's spelling let themselves down. I read this today:
 "Myself, i HATE to see spelling errors in texts that are supposed to have been proff-read."
It's spell checkers that get singled out for most of the blame. I was sent an article on the subject today that I really want to respond to. So I'm going to!

You can read the article Technology Spell Check Leaves Many Adults Unable To Spell here or just read me ranting about it below.

The article starts off by claiming:
Technology has left many Britons unable to spell words like "definitely" and "separate", a survey has found. It suggests that the UK has produced an "auto-correct generation" that relies on computer spell checks. The poll, which questioned more than 2,000 adults, found that around a third could not spell "definitely" while a similar proportion failed to pick the right spelling of "separate". And around two thirds (65%) picked a wrong spelling for "necessary" from a list that did not include the right spelling.
First objection: Lots of people couldn't spell 'definitely' and 'separate' long before computers were around. I remember only learning to spell 'definitely' when I realised it contained the word 'finite'.

Second: spell checkers and auto-correct are different things. The spell checker warns you that you might have spelled something wrong and encourages you to think about what you meant to write but auto-correct just changes it for you if you've written a string of letters that people often write meaning something else.

Third: I don't like their 'poll'. Asking people to choose the correct spelling when it is surrounded by wrong but plausible spellings is asking for trouble. You might automatically write 'necessary' correctly in a sentence, but when someone offers you the choice of the word with two 'c's or one 's', it makes you stop and think that maybe you were wrong. It plants the seed of doubt. So that's bad enough but here the list didn't even include the right spelling, so it sounds like people were tricked. By the way if you can't remember how to spell the word 'necessary', remember "It's necessary to have one coat (one 'c') and two socks (two 's's)".

The article goes on:
And many people are relying on spell checks - 18% said they use this all the time. Fewer than one in 10 (9%) said they never use a spell check.
Umm ... what's wrong with using a spell check? I use one all the time too. It's a good strategy to catch your typos and words you're not sure about. In fact, what worried me about this was that 82% don't use one all the time. Try it, folks, you'll like it.

Sure there are people who can't spell well - lots of them - and it's a problem. But is it really getting worse or just more obvious? Whichever, I offer two suggestions:

1) Let's not teach children that English is spelled as it sounds (phonics) as more than 50% of it isn't. Yes, they need to learn sound-to-letter correspondences, but they also need to learn about the origins of words and look at a range of strategies for coping with the complexity that is English spelling. (See Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners for ways to do this.)

2) We should all (myself included) train ourselves to pause and check what we've written before pressing the Send button. And again we need more focus on this at school - editing.

So what about you?

  • Do you agree with me?
  • Do you have any proof that spelling has really got worse?
  • How do you feel about spell checkers?
  • And auto-correct?
  • And phonics?


  1. I definitely ;) agree. As someone who is Dyslexic (and thus entitled to speak for the entire Dyslexic community) I am so grateful for spell checkers and even auto-correctors within technology. Having that little red line or seeing the words change after I have typed them is a learning opportunity.
    What did I type incorrectly, How should it be spelt, how can I remember this for the next occasion.
    If it weren't for spell checkers I would have given up on writing a long time ago and instead gone for a more (personally) boring job relating to maths or science.
    (I hope you appreciate the sarcasm in the comment)

  2. Thanks for you comment, Chris.

    Spell checkers are even better if, like you Chris, people use them as providing learning opportunities. That's the only thing I have against autocorrect - there's no learning opportunity because sometimes you don't even know it's happened.

    Maths or science jobs probably pay better than ones where you write, so hoping you get more out of your job than money!!


  3. My first reaction to this was why would any poll ask people to chose the correct spelling (of 'necessary') when it is not even listed? Asking for trouble, as you rightly point out.

    I just decided to do a quick straw poll of my (postgraudate student) household and 4 out of 5 said immediately that they relied upon the in-built spell checker, partially because the perception of their spelling was 'it's bad anyway', but mostly because of fast typing and typos. The red wavy line underneath a word it seems is a huge prompt to correcting a spelling. In that sense, I agree - it makes you think - so as long as your spell-check or auto-correct is set to BritEng not AmEng you're OK. But generally, it is not helping the average person at all to spell correctly, because it is being done for them. NO learning takes place. Means to an end. Just my contribution...

  4. First of all, I'm the king of typos. Second, I'm a freespeller — I often choose to note a more simplified form of spelling. I note OpenOffice (LibreOffice) for some of my writing and it has auto-correct. Since I'm a freespeller, I'v had to go in and take out of the "errors" that it was auto-correcting.

    What the auto-correct does is make us lazy and not look for errors ... I know the difference between they're and their ... but sometimes I thinking faster than I'm typing and I don't catch it. Since they are right spellings, auto-correct will not catch them either. If the grammar check is turned on, there might be a squiggly blue line.

    The spelling of words has always been in a state of flux. As someone who reads stuff all the way back to Old English/Anglo-Saxon, I can tell that many of the current oddly spelled words hav little or no historical or even etymological justification. For byspel, thru/through in OE was þurh ... þ = th ... thurh. Swap the r and u and yu hav thruh not through. The "ou" for u or oo comes from the Norman-French and still haunts us today in many words.

    Not only is the spelling of words changing, but it is speeding up. This is happening for many reasons. I stopped noting though, although, and through many, many years ago. I'v written many term papers and a lot of corporate reports with tho, altho, and thru.

  5. I do agree with you, Johanna. And it's not Britons only! Native English speakers in South Africa suffer from the same spelling malady and have been doing so since well before the first spell checker reared its (pretty) head!

    Like you, I rely heavily on my spell checker to remind me of letters I may have missed or to iron out those wrinkly moments of spelling doubt. We all have those, I'm sure!

    The article in the Huffington Post is perhaps a little too sensationalist, don't you think? It would have been far more valuable if they had gone to the trouble of comparing their results with results that predated the first spell checker :)

    What I do agree with is that people don't like seeing spelling mistakes on websites. I conducted an anecdotal survey on this some months ago to check a BBC article that ran last year. The results of my survey certainly confirms the point you make (worrying about the 82% that don't use a spell checker as a matter of course).

    I would add instill a love of reading to your suggestion list. Better spelling is organically cultivated by reading more :)

    Thanks for a great post!

  6. Why does it matter whether people can spell correctly without the use of a spell-checker? The aim is to communicate efficiently, and spelling is just one part of that. I teach struggling students in a secondary school. Their final assignments should all be typed up for submission, and I spend time in my lessons focusing on the importance of spellcheckers as a strategy to help with spelling. Handwriting as a means to communicate with another person is fast becoming why not rely on spellcheckers? I don't agree the claim that spellcheckers or auto-correct allow people to become lazy....the assistance they provide in writing allows people to use a wider range of vocabulary than they might otherwise, and gives people time to focus on the organisation and information in their writing.

    1. My point is that if you rely on spell checkers, you become lazy and miss the their/their or loose/lose mistakes ... or someone who write bear for beer on the pattern of ear, dear, fear, asf.

      Handwriting notes becoming obsolete? Surely you jest? I have a notepad that I keep in my bag with my laptop or a small pad that I carry in a cargo pocket. I often write notes not only to myself, but to others.

      My former business partner and I often left each other handwritten notes. His spelling was truly bad and it was a factor in my decision to push spelling reform. I can still recall his notes under the "spend" column: 2 cases of bear (beer).

  7. I do agree with you on several of your points. I too, feel that auto-correct is not such a good thing. I always turn it off if I have that option. It does things like "correcting" your words that may only have a typo because you were going fast into totally different words or forms. Then you may not catch the errors! Spell checkers, on the other hand, have value as they leave it to you whether or not to change the word in question. Plus, they help you catch typos of words that you know how to spell, but just typed wrong. Also, if you're not sure about a spelling, just type in what you think and it'll tell you if it's right. Thus, you have hopefully learned the correct spelling.

    As far as whether or not spelling has gotten worse, I really don't know. I have always known abysmal spellers. It seems to me that maybe people have gotten lazier about their spelling. I have no proof of either though. I believe that spelling matters, because it does make a person look ignorant or lazy when they have multiple misspellings, which in turn may cause others to be dismissive of them. I do agree that perhaps it's just more visible now.

    As far as phonics, well, I have to strongly disagree with you on that. Even though it's imperfect, my experience has been that children who are taught phonics tend to be much better readers and spellers than those taught by rote or other means. Although teaching word origins could only be helpful. My son and daughter who went to a school that had heavy emphasis on phonics are both very advanced readers and excellent spellers (my son has won several spelling bees and received awards for reading as well). But it's also possible that they might have excelled in those areas anyway. I do know that their cousins, who didn't learn phonics, are poorer readers and spellers.

  8. I've just had a warm discussion with colleagues about spelling in a workshop I ran. There was widespread support for having children write out words numerous times (up to 20 times each) in 'teaching' them English spelling.
    This is an approach which has had a large following in schools in Bulgaria where I live for a long time. Arguments for it include 'preparing for university entrance exams', 'competing in English language Olympiads', and 'spelling is generally getting worse'.
    I wonder if writing out words 'x' times is popular in other countries... no wonder there is an issue of lack of motivation for language learning in some classrooms here!
    I suggested it wasn't a very effective way of learning how to spell and in searching for ideas and informed opinion I came across your site. I'm going to buy the book and will share your very creative (and very sensible) ideas with my colleagues. Thanks.