Alex Steer

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I before E except in DCSF

930 words

Update: 16 March 2009 - Rob Wilson's blog no longer seems to be available.

Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, has spelling mistakes on his blog. Predictably, everybody is having a field day with this, dutifully listing some of the more egregious errors. Rob Wilson, the Conservative education spokesman, managed this rather neat jibe about his opponent:

He will be disappointed with his efforts in class but I'm sure he'll make every effort to improve now teacher has noticed he's falling behind.

The papers are loving it too. The Telegraph, always a stickler for standards, has wheeled its grammarians out of whichever corners grammarians inhabit, to remind us that:

Mr Knight, who is responsible for raising education standards, also clearly has problems with the "i before e, except after c" spelling rule taught to primary school pupils.

Two things are clear. The first is that we love a good laugh at someone's expense. There is perhaps no neater world-gone-mad story than one about a schools minister who's not very good at spelling. It gives expression to our dislike for authority figures, while at the same time letting us remind ourselves how much we love hard and fast rules when it comes to language - or, at least, how much we love letting other people know that we know those rules. There's room within the story for shock and disappointment (genuine or otherwise), and for a little bit of smugness to round it off. He may be the schools minister, but we can spell 'recess'.

The second thing that's clear is that none of Jim Knight's fastidious nemeses has heard of Muphry's Law. This is the jokey adage, common among proofreaders, editors, lexicographers and the like, that any written criticism of editing or proofreading will itself contain an editing or proofreading error.

In this case, Muphry's Law has chosen the Telegraph as its victim. Here's the first full paragraph of its piece:

The mispellings of Mr Knight, who was educated at Cambridge University, include "maintainence", "convicned", "curently", "similiar", "foce", "pernsioners", "reccess" and "archeaological".

Yes, that's mispellings.*

But the Law has another, perhaps more perfect victim this week. It's Rob Wilson, the abovementioned Conservative education spokesman. Mr Wilson also has a blog. Both Jim Knight and Rob Wilson have published posts of roughly equivalent length in the last week. (Jim Knight's is 337 words; Rob Wilson's is 465.)

I could be unreasonably cruel to them both and go through their posts as an editor, looking for the whole range of improvements that need making to grammar, style, punctuation, etc. But since this fight is about spelling, let's stick to words that are spelled incorrectly.

In Jim Knight's post:

In their plans schools could set up where ever, with no local co-ordination.

This should read 'wherever'. I count this as a spelling error, because 'wherever' is, in this context, probably best read as locative adverb (elliptically for 'wherever they like' or similar, in which 'wherever' is a subordinating conjunction), for which you can't really substitute the conjunction + adverb combination 'where ever' (even though this is the root of the subordinating conjunctive use of 'wherever' - stop me if this is getting too exciting). It's therefore not a valid option for spelling the word Jim Knight wanted to use.

In Rob Wilson's post:

I also know that the procedures of Parliament get things right many more times then they get them wrong

Then should be than.

and

I am a lover of Parliamentary democracy and the traditions developed here over hundred's of year.

Hundred's should be hundreds.

So, Rob Wilson's most recent post contains twice as many errors as Jim Knight's. Clearly the Schools Minister has been learning his lesson and checking his work.

But does it matter, even slightly? A sociolinguist will tell you that people apply different standards of orthography according to the media in which they're writing. That's why, despite a million scare stories, kids don't tend to write their homework in text-speak, and why your respectable auntie will send you texts without any vowels in. Anyone, sociolinguist or otherwise, will tell you that sometimes mistakes creep in because of errors in what you do, not what you know. If you type quickly and don't check your spelling, you might end up with 'recieve' instead of 'receive'. It doesn't make you an idiot, just a bit careless. And you might have good reason not to care. Blogs, even MPs' blogs, still have a reputation as being informal means of communication. That's part of their charm. That means they don't go through rigorous proofing and correction (apart from this one, obviously). That's probably especially true when their authors have other things to do, like, say, being responsible for the performance of every school in the country.

You'd think, given the widespread impression that all political communications are now ruthlessly controlled, we might be reassured by a few typos.**


* By the way, Googling 'mispelling' is a hilarious experience. You get a lot of pages of people using the word to complain about other people's misspellings.

** Yes, maybe that's the point. Conspiracy theories to the usual address.

# Alex Steer (11/02/2009)