Monday, 6 February 2012

Probable Cause

I received an email last week from my daughter's college. Hampshire schools, for whatever reason, do not have "sixth forms"; instead, students wishing to study A Levels and the like must attend one of a number of post-16 colleges with anything from 1,500-3,500 students each.

It can be a bit impersonal, as there are multiple large classes in the popular subjects, and it's all very different from my own long-ago sixth-form years in the last century. This impersonality puts a large premium on the quality of communication between the college, students and parents.

The subject of the mail I received is irrelevant, though I was irritated by the fact that it betrayed an oh-don't-bother-me attitude to an important matter. No, it was the spelling that got my attention. Here is the first significant sentence, with X and Y substituted for the actual items:
"The [X] and [Y] would of been sent to you seperately."
OK. "Seperately" I can accept -- I doubt my partner knows how to spell "separately", as it happens*. But "would of" always gets my goat.

Then came the next two sentences:
"The form your completed has been crossed through proberly by me and marked completed. So two things could of happened."
Proberly?? Did she mean "probably"? Do you know, in all the poorly-written job applications, memos, emails, and semi-literate scribblings that have passed before my eyes, I have never before seen that one. It's not a mistake, either, or a typo for "properly", as she repeats it later on. However, I see there are 1,400,000 hits on Google for "proberly", so I've clearly led a sheltered life, orthographically-speaking.

Now, as I think I've made clear in previous posts, I'm not by nature one of those reactionary pedants who recoil and reach for the green ink on hearing some ugly new coinage. I enjoy and employ fashionable usages and occupational argot, and have no problem at all with the fact that language changes. I'm liking it, even. But I am a bit of a spelling fascist.

Why, you might ask, would someone be tolerant in some areas of language use and yet be so intolerant in others, especially one as arbitrary (and divisive) as spelling? Good question. For me, it's like this:

Of all the causes of evil in this world, of which there are many, the two that I find bother me most often -- perhaps because I encounter them so frequently -- are ignorance and carelessness. These "minor" vices bother me because they are unnecessary and easily fixed but, unchecked, quickly turn into the major vices of stupidity and malice.

It bothers me that someone, for example, who is employed to communicate with parents from within an educational institution can pay so little attention to the written word and to her own standards of literacy that she has not noticed that she cannot spell a word that must pass in front of her careless eyes -- properly spelled and in clear, printed letters -- at least a dozen times every week. Probably more.

Obviously, standards have changed in recent times, and no one likes to be the sort of prig who bounces such errors straight back to sender. I expect Miss Proberly sails through her annual appraisal; a lovely person with just the right customer-facing attitude. But would you accept this core-level carelessness from the mechanic who services your car? OK, he left in the old spark-plugs, and didn't replace the oil -- oh, and look, he's put oily marks all over your upholstery -- but why get hung up on prissy details, when he's such a nice bloke! The car still goes, doesn't it?

I accept that some people have poor literacy skills, and probably get by without them very well (though that's questionable). After all, my bricklaying isn't up to much, or my object-oriented programming, come to that. But for a literate person in a clerical job to misspell "probably" as "proberly" shows a wilful lack of self-awareness, shading into arrogance, that is every bit as witless as the person who emerges from a shop, unwraps a sandwich, and tosses the packaging onto the pavement, right next to the bin.

Trivial, yes, and no laws other than those of grammar have been broken. But it's symptomatic of a social malaise, something that could yet slowly poison everything for everyone. "Carelessness" is dangerous because the thing is, we can't really pick and choose what to care about. A caring state of mind is indivisible. Careless spelling is on the same continuum as failing to check properly the points on a railway junction. It's one of those areas where the personal really is the political.

But did I send an email back, correcting her spelling and explaining the folly of "would of / could of"? Of course I didn't. I suppose you might say I just didn't care enough.

* Isn't it odd how people seem to think that studying English at degree level bestows full Complete Plain Words style authority (or, in these diminished times, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves style authority") on the English graduate? Do they think there are compulsory papers on "spelling really difficult words" and "speaking proper"?


Kent Wiley said...

"Proberly"? I mean, my humble little laptop underlines the word as misspelled before I've gone two characters away from that egregious abomination. But "would of"? Good golly, Miss Molly. As we say around here all the time, "Hell in a hand basket."

But seriously, there's a long piece by David Foster Wallace collected in his book "Consider the Lobster & Other Essays" titled "Authority and American Usage" which is ostensibly a review of "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage", but digresses in many directions. As I recall there are some amusing comments about his own family's spelling and grammar Nazi tendencies.

Mike C. said...


It's a bit tongue-in-cheek, this post, but this kind of thing does make me very angry sometimes. As you say, just having the spell-check on would help...

"Would of / Should of / Could of" are close to becoming perfectly normal in Britain, as are "somethink" and "haitch". It's an uphill struggle convincing anyone these usages are either wrong or not standard speech (especially when they are used by a good many primary school teachers...)

I wouldn't mind so much, but it's precisely this sort of thing that reinforces the class-bound nature of British society.


Martyn Cornell said...

You're on a loser with "haitch", Mike, it's the absolutely standard Hibernian English pronunciation: indeed, it's a good shibboleth for distinguishing those who had a Roman Catholic education from those who didn't. In my home, therefore, I'm outnumbered two to one by haitchers …

Mike C. said...


I know, I know -- people seem to be convinced nowadays that to say "aitch" means you are dropping your, um, aitches, and that it's posher to say "haitch"... Often the same people who think "me" is somehow unrefined ("he gave it to John and I").

Oddly, "haitch" and "somethink" seem to be local to Southampton, too.


Graham Dew said...


Shorely you mean some 'somefink'? Yur having a larf...

But seriously, you are right about 'should of'; there are many who are oblivious to this misuse.

And why do so many people start a sentence, especially an answer, with'so'?


'B' English Language 'O' level (retake)

Mike C. said...


I think the "So,..." thing is a recent tic, and it doesn't annoy me (yet, anyway). It's just a fashionable "phatic", throat-clearing, attention- getting noise, which I think people have picked up from US TV imports. Though I have heard a lot of Welsh people use "that" as a sentence starter in a similar way.

The use of "somethink" on the South Coast seems to be of long-standing; I have several, well-educated colleagues of local origin, who say it, and it surprises me every time.

Besides, I should probably point out that, although I may write fairly correct English, my own spoken idiom is a much-dented car-crash of Estuary, East Anglian and RP influences that would never land me a job as a broadcaster... I think I have mentioned before that teachers mocked my mumbling accent all the way through school.


Kent Wiley said...

Interesting... the "haitch" phenomena hasn't made it to this side of the Atlantic, that I'm aware of. Give us time, I'm sure it'll get here.

I agree completely about the spread of "So..." It's all over network acting, one of the reasons to avoid that programming like the plague. Whether it started there, hard to say.

At some point we have to recognize and accept regionalisms that add a bit of character to our everyday expressions. One of my favorites around here is "chimbley" for chimney, and "rebarb" for rebar, the steel reinforcement.

But "should of/could of/would of" is plain wrong! OTOH, my personal campaign of word annihilation is to eradicate the ever so squishy word "just". "Let me just explain... I'm just going to be a minute... should of/could of/would of is just plain wrong." Just stop it. Not certain, but this could very well be laid at the doorstep of bad teevee writing as well.

Mike C. said...


Agreed, Britain is much enhanced by our regional accents -- the range (and persistence) of them is phenomenal, given the relatively small geographical area.

One of my favourites is the tendency of inhabitants of Bristol to add an L to words ending in a vowel. There's a famous story of a Bristol dignitary introducing his three daughters as Idle, Evil, and Normal.


Martyn Cornell said...

Kent, Mike will hate me for reminding him of this idiot, but as those of us who can't get the Singing Postman scrubbed from our minds will recall, "chimley" is the standard Norfolk (East Anglia, rather than Virginia) pronunciation of chimney.

Mike C. said...


I will now be stuck with "Hev You Got A Loight, Boy?" for the next week.

Half my family really do talk like that...


Tony_C said...

Idle, Evil, and Normal

Amusing though this is, it is in fact spurious, as Bristolians only INTERPOSE an “l” between the end of a word ending in a vowel and a word beginning with one, in much the same way that us [WE! Ed.] Stevenage boys (as well as many others) interpose an “r” in similar circumstances (e.g. “Ider, Evar and Norma”). So actually he would have introduced his daughters as “Idle, Evil and Norma”, (moi lover). I fink.

Of course, at the same time we (unlike e.g. N. American English speakers) neglect to pronounce final “r”s when the next word starts with a consonant (“A betta deal”) and often wrongly interpose a non-existent “r” between words when trying to take off the accent of our American cousins, who pronounce “r”s that follow vowels while we merely modify the vowel; thus in the US “father” and “farther” are, unlike here (Stevenage, but perhaps not S’hampton, and certainly not Bristol), pronounced differently. English ”Yoof” slang has taken this further as, where we would simply pronounce a schwa when a word ends in “er”, the young (and trendy?) seem to pronounce a full “a”.

Got to admit that when texting, I use “probly”, as well as the grammatically execrable “would of” etc. But that’s proberly just to save money. Or summink.


"chimbley" for chimney, and "rebarb" for rebar

Another good one like this is “wallplug” for “Rawlplug” (which, in case you don’t have them round your way, is a proprietary name for those plastic plugs you put in a wall when fixing screws).