herald

Thursday 19 April 2018

Con Houlihan: Avoiding a spell of trouble

When I was a young lad growing up in Kerry, there was an extraordinary attitude towards spelling: bad spelling was deemed a mark of bad breeding. Why this was so I couldn't understand, nor do I still.

Radios were few then and television seemed part of science fiction. Women wrote to one another in a way that is almost unknown now. If a woman made a mistake, it was deemed an insult to her friend and a slur on herself. Before a letter was sealed, everybody present was consulted until a consensus was reached. The amazing fact was that dictionaries were as rare as radios. There certainly wasn't one in every house. That might have spoiled the fun of having the consultation.

The truth is that spelling has little to do with intelligence. You can spell well if your mind has the power to retain the image of the words. Ernest Hemingway was a notoriously bad speller. In writing even the simplest letter, he had to employ a secretary.

Contagious

Brian O'Nolan, otherwise known as Myles na Gopaleen, was unhappy in the Civil Service. Indeed there were times when he was more absent from his desk than behind it. His great wish was to become a proof reader in a newspaper. Little did he know: he would meet so much bad spelling, that he would have doubts about his own. This is a contagious disease. In my work as an examiner for the Department of Education in the Honours English Leaving Certificate paper, I found out that my own spelling was beginning to deteriorate.

Until I read some well-printed book, my confidence didn't come back. You will see some amazing examples of bad spelling in Dublin's fair city. Shepherd's Pie has been spelled as Shepherd's Pi -- no doubt they do. In this form one word is unrecognisable. Over 30 years ago the Department of Education decreed that spelling was not important -- it was the ideas that counted. Thus today we have bright young men and women who cannot spell. A few years ago, when about to publish a book, four brilliant people were asked to help with the corrections. They all cried off because they wouldn't take the responsibility.

The harmless little squiggle called the apostrophe has almost broken up marriages and caused trouble among families. It is so simple that people cannot accept it -- they become mesmerised. It is my belief that anybody who misuses the apostrophe is capable of anything. The apostrophe is used to replace missing letters -- couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't and so on. It is also used to tell you whether nouns are singular or plural -- the horse's stable, the horses' stables. Some nouns do not take s in their plural. They change internally -- thus 'man' becomes 'men' and 'woman' becomes 'women'. Those plurals always take an apostrophe -- the women's dresses, the men's hats. There is one difficulty about the s -- it's a fine day is an abbreviation of it is a fine day. The dog ate its dinner -- no apostrophe needed. This is a very important rule -- we often see 'its' used when it should be 'it's'.

Some people have difficulty with spelling. There is no easy remedy but it can be a help to break up words into parts. So you can write 'remarkable' as 'remark' and 'able'. You can write 'wholesome' as 'whole' and 'some'. This doesn't work in all cases. They must learn to spell in the old-fashioned way -- off by heart or to be exact, off by mind. It helps to keep a dictionary near, preferably in your pocket.

There are many amusing stories told about things that happen in the context of spelling. Some may be true.

Perhaps the most famous is about a dray horse that fell down one day in the middle of Dublin's Exchequer Street. The RIC always prided themselves on their spelling ability and when a constable arrived with his pencil and notebook he looked master of all he surveyed. Alas, the street nameplate there had faded and the constable was not confident that he could replace the missing letters. And so the horse was brought around into Wicklow Street.

Drowsy

There is another little story that even Ireland's Own couldn't make up. It happened in the primary school not far from my home. The headmaster liked to have a few bottles of stout with his lunch and sometimes he was slightly drowsy when school resumed. And so he got his class to do their reading. The first boy started boldly to read a poem called O Steer My Barque To Erin's Isle, For Erin Is My Home. He got only as far as "O steer my" when he stopped. The master woke up and said "Go on boy." The boy started again but said only three words. The master said "Go on boy -- barque, barque." The boy replied: "Bow wow wow."

If you are still unhappy with your spelling, it is a good plan to write passages of prose or poetry in a notebook and read through them now and again. If a word is still puzzling you, put a small dot near it and go over those passages again and again. Writing down words helps them to lodge in your memory. Unconsciously you are learning them.

Singing, too, can be a help to memorise words. It doesn't always work out. There was a young man who sang every morning as he passed our house on his way to work who used to sing "My old man's a Dutchman, he wears a Dutchman's hat, he wears gorblimey trousers and he lives in a council flat."

The best advice that I can give about spelling: don't be frightened by it, you are one of many. Don't believe all that nonsense about bad spelling being associated with bad breeding. When you are reading newspapers or whatever, be on the lookout for possible mistakes and try to correct and memorise them.

Fogra: It is with great pleasure I welcome back my old colleague, Liam Hayes, to his work

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