Friday, 30 November 2012


Thanks to Sally for her comment about the Ofsted inspector who mistakenly corrected the spelling pronunciation on a poster during a school inspection.  By claiming that the correct spelling and pronunciation of this word should be pronounciation the inspector made a common slip, although it is unfortunate that this word appears on the Government’s list of spellings which should be correctly spelled by all children in year 6.

This word entered English in the fifteenth century from the French pronunciacione, itself derived from the Latin pronuntiation.  The earliest recorded English spelling is pronunciation, although the variant spelling pronounciation, prompted by the related verb pronounce, is recorded from the fifteenth century, and continued to appear in print until the eighteenth century.  This misspelling, and corresponding mispronunciation, remains widespread today, despite being condemned by guides to correct usage.

The unfortunate Ofsted inspector is not alone in unwittingly revealing his own ignorance by condemning the correct spelling of this word.  A website which lists ‘50 incorrect pronunciations that you should avoid’ includes the following appeal to standards of correct pronounciation : ‘Could you imagine trying to learn a language, or understand someone speaking it, when each person pronounces the word how they feel it should be pronounced. For this reason, some standard is absolutely necessary; I can’t fathom how a language could evolve gracefully without upholding some semblance of proper pronounciation.’

Both of which are useful reminders that, before criticizing someone's spelling, check you know how to spell it yourself!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Rhubarb, rubarb, roobarb...

In his excellent recent book Spell It Out, David Crystal reports that, searching the internet over the past six years, he has noted an increase in the spelling rubarb over the traditional spelling rhubarb.  In 2006 there were just a few hundred occurrences of this spelling, by 2011 there were more than a million instances. Crystal predicts that over the next five years rubarb will become the more common spelling of the word online, concluding that the ‘offline world’ will follow suit over the next decade. 

The spelling rubarb isn’t actually a new development, but rather a return to the word’s origins, since its earliest spelling in Middle English is reubarb.  The word was borrowed from the French reubarbe, only adopting the form rhubarb in the sixteenth century by comparison with the original form of the word in Greek: rheon barbaron.  The Greek term literally means ‘foreign rhubarb’; the word barbaron being the root of our word barbarous. 

The problem with using the Internet as a linguistic corpus is that it’s changing all the time, so that you don’t really know what you’re searching.  Many of these rubarbs are not genuine uses of the word but Trade names, personal names and pet names.  Searching the digital archive of The Times newspaper, which covers the period from 1785-2006, suggests that the rubarb spelling was much less common in print during that period – just 23 instances, against 4845 of rhubarb.  The Oxford English corpus, a collection of 2 billion words of contemporary spoken and written English, has just 7 instances; the only examples found on The Guardian website are from an article by David Crystal!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


This is the first word on the controversial list of spellings which all children in Years 5 and 6 will have to learn under the Coalition Government’s proposals to reform the National Curriculum.  It is one of the most frequently misspelled words in the English language – as witnessed by the numerous hotels and Bed and Breakfasts offering ‘accomodation’.  Even NHS hospital and University websites frequently misspell this word; to contact the University of Ulster residential services by email you need to spell the word incorrectly, as the misspelling features in their address.  

 The root of the word is a Classical Latin verb accommodare, which is also the basis of the simplified spellings found in Spanish and Portuguese acomodar, Italian accomodare and Romanian acomoda.  In standard English the Latin spelling has been preserved, although a variant spelling accomodate was in use up to the end of the eighteenth century and commonly appears today on websites, blogs, emails and Twitter posts.  It is even found in the Tory party’s own printed documents, as in this quotation from The New Logo and Party Visual Identity User’s Guide: ‘The great thing about the Party’s new visual identity is that we can make it work for everyone. Templates are available on Concept that accomodate shorter constituency names as well as longer constituency names’.  All this goes to show that it’s often easier to prescribe spelling standards than it is to maintain them.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


Amidst all the commentary following the Obama re-election, there has been little attention paid to the importance of punctuation in securing the president’s victory.  The initial reception of Obama’s campaign slogan ‘Forward.’ was decidedly lukewarm, with criticism directed at its inclusion of the full stop, which one of his advisers argued could be taken to mean ‘forward, now stop’.  Although objecting to the use of the period here, Austin Goolsbee did note that it could be worse, ‘It could be “Forward” comma, which would make it raise the question “and now what?”’  Carol Lee of The Wall Street Journal consulted grammatical experts over this use of the full stop, with some objecting to it on the grounds that ‘Forward’ is not a sentence.  George Lakoff, a professor of Linguistics, argued that the full stop, termed the ‘period’ in America, is appropriate because ‘Forward’ is an imperative sentence: ‘You can look at the period as adding a sense of finality, making a strong statement: Forward. Period. And no more’.   

Despite Lakoff’s defence, there followed a tendency for the full stop to be dropped in campaign ads.  One of Obama’s spokespeople claimed that there was no particular reason for this, suggesting that further punctuation excitement could be around the corner: ‘Stay on your toes—anything could happen. Do not be surprised if we introduce a semicolon.’  More excitement was to come, but in the form of the exclamation mark rather than the semicolon, added in October.  Rather than endorsing Lakoff’s interpretation of the slogan as an imperative, the Obama camp explained the addition of the exclamation mark as a way of ‘pumping up’ the slogan to reflect the team’s continued energy for the campaign.  The rest is, of course, history.  Not strictly about spelling, I know, but surely a better indication that punctuation matters than that old joke about a panda.