When people hear I'm writing a book about spelling, the reaction is usually 'Who on earth cares about spelling apart from pedants and cranks?' Here are some of the reasons I find it fascinating.
Probably my subconscious starting point was the problem every man faces who is called Vivian: with an 'a' it's a man's name, Vivian Richards, with an 'e' a woman's name, Vivien Leigh. But this simple fact is so little known that it needs explaining almost every day even in England. Don't try to go to the United States. Immigration officers take you aside for questioning. Bank cashiers suggest that your life would be easier if you changed your name by deed poll. The spelling of one's name can be a sore point for many people.
Then I became interested in the spelling of the foreign students I teach. The Japanese would give me essays with 'grobal' for 'global' and 'sarari' for 'salary'. The Greeks would hand in work with 'Grade Britain' and 'Gambridge'.
Like most teachers I simply corrected the mistakes - another rash of red ink. But then I got to wondering why literate and highly educated people still made these mistakes. Some of them like 'grobal' show how they pronounced English. Others like 'Gambridge' may show they write a different alphabet.
But many of the mistakes seemed rather familiar. So I looked at English students' essays, which turned out to have very similar mistakes. It wasn't that the foreigners were bad spellers so much as everybody hits the same barriers with English spelling, whether words with similar sounds like 'quite' and 'quiet' or decisions about which vowel to use in 'relevent' and 'compulsary'.
You only have to look around you to see spelling problems displayed on signs and notices. I took to collecting mistakes with a camera. A corner cafe proclaims it is a 'restuarant'; signs announce 'Appartments to let'; a garage repairs 'Japanisse' cars. Many English people visibly fail to master the complex system of spelling.
However, many of them are not so much mistakes as playing with spelling. Take shop-names for instance. A fish shop may be 'The Cod Father', a flower-shop 'Fleurtations'. Despite teacher's attempts to lay down traditional rules, people break them to amuse and entertain, just as English people have played with puns and riddles from Shakespeare to Spike Milligan.
So I started roaming the streets wherever I happened to be, taking photographs of the odd spellings – otherwise no-one would believe them. The dangerous side of this pursuit is when the only possible place from which to take 'Body and Sole' is the middle of the road. The embarrassing side is when you can't really explain why you want a photo of 'Bannana's' to the stall-holder himself. And you have to take the photo the moment you see the sign. I made my family trudge around Toronto looking for a prime example of a 'Stationary' shop I had glimpsed from a car the day before.
What became abundantly clear to me was that alternative spellings matter. Over £230,000 was paid for the car number-plate 'K1NGS' and £108,000 for S1NGH. Big money to hinge on a resemblance between a number '1' and a letter 'l'. A person who makes house-signs told me the most frequent request was for 'Llamedos' (try it backwards), perhaps to put visitors off. Cars and houses make statements about their owners and the spelling of their names can be crucial.
I began to realise that people knew more about spelling than anybody suspected. I was always puzzled in shops when they asked if I spelled my surname 'Cook' with an 'e'. Then I found a book that claimed surnames often have an extra 'e' added to distinguish them from nouns – 'Wilde' and 'Moore' rather than 'wild' and 'moor'. The shop assistants knew a rule I had never known existed, even if it isn't much use with 'Cook'.
Then I spotted that a prime source of mistakes and alternative spellings was the PC sitting on my desk. I started asking people for e-mails and text messages and even joined an on-line chat-room on cookery to get real examples – not that cookery ever seemed to be mentioned.
People are rather reluctant to actually hand over these messages. One solution is to say something outrageous in an internet discussion group and see what rolls in. One of my students was deluged with e-mails when she broached the question of Greeks using English spelling for e-mails, called Greeklish.
I suspect that people's coyness is due to a sense of guilt about the liberties they are taking with English spelling. A standard e-mail technique is extra vowels for emphasis – 'sooo goooood'. Chat-rooms rely on abbreviations – 'LOL' (laughing out load). Conditioned by school ideas about spelling, people don't want others to glimpse these oddities.
The interest for me, however, is the same alternative spellings spring into existence simultaneously among so many people. You can't send long messages on your mobile phone so you condense the message – why not 'R U in 4 T?' People are surprisingly aware of the potential of spelling for doing new things. After all in previous centuries they adapted English spelling to the printed book and the typewriter.
So, before spelling is dismissed as boring and unimportant, people should think how they would feel if their name was misspelt, confess how much they paid for their personalised number-plate, remember which shops they visit with novel names, or think how they would manage to send text-messages using the full standard spelling. Spelling is becoming even more part of people's lives now that we can write English in so many ways.
Vivian Cook is the author of The English Writing System (Arnold) and of Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary (Profile)