Let’s just take a spell

Published on December 4, 2016

What I came across last month in a 1944 school speller was a set of simple sentences; part of a Grade 8 “special mid-term review.” I’ve given four of them below. Read them and think. Hard to believe they were written more than 70 years pre-Trump:

“To which, especially, of his various excellent qualities do you think that he owes his success?”

“Under such circumstances we shall avoid making the slightest trouble for them.”

“There is in existence today a strong sentiment in favour of democracy.”

“They are enclosing the field with a permanent fence.”

Just a few clips from “The Canadian Speller Book Two” compiled by Frank Quance and published by W.J. Gage & Company in Toronto. The speller was used in St. John’s schools; scribbles inside the front cover show that. It was likely also used around the island.

A simple school speller can kickstart all kinds of memories and debates.


No need to teach spelling?

First of all I asked a middle-aged, retired teacher to tell me about spelling today. This is part of what I took from our conversation:

If you’re criticizing the absence of spelling lessons in schools today, you should know that no move on the curriculum is made without considerable research. The decision to eliminate spelling and/or grammar has arguments both pro and con. A significant amount of class time was absorbed years ago in learning grammar and spelling. Today, extremely few people need to know about prepositions or gerunds. Correct spelling can be instilled in students in the course of learning other subjects – for example, a geography paper can be marked on research, reasoning, structure as well as on the spelling.

So, we acquire correct spelling subliminally? With no grounding in syllables and mastering the letter structure of those meaningless puzzle parts, I still don’t know how you would construct a word on paper if you had never seen it spelled out.


A loss for the humanities

Building his book in the early 1940s Dr. Quance received the help of superintendents, inspectors of schools, teachers and pupils “from the Atlantic to the Pacific. All that high-powered help to come up with 84 pages (7.5 x 5.5). Point is, however, spelling proficiency was widely held at the time to be a crucial aspect of communication. Each of those 84 pages, seen as valuable then, are near worthless now. That’s a radical about-face in one lifetime.

Basically speaking, if we did not have agreement on how words are spelled, communication would suffer. A $5 bill, for example, requires general agreement on what it is and the value which the majority ascribes to it before we can grant it any currency.

Dr. Quance writes better then I do sew I often do not no his meaning. But he tells me to never split infinitives.


We’re all right

You may have heard of Dr. Johnson’s 1747 dictionary. In fact, if you have gotten this far in this particular type of column, then you surely have. But what interests me is that Johnson knew that the rules and precepts, tenets and stipulations he apparently worked with are just about all open to argument. He wrote in his dictionary (ascribed to Lord Chesterfield), “This, my lord, is my idea of an English dictionary.”

There is, of course, also the matter of pronunciation when we use words for communication. Pronounced according to the general agreement of your tribe they are much more effective than body language, although twisting the interlocked fingers, bringing a yawn into the conversation to allow time to form your next sentence, allowing the cheeks to flush red, peppering your speech with “bridges” like “y’know” are all aspects of that more primitive communication that are not without power.  

Our brothers and sisters in the United Kingdom take pride in the (not generally agreed) knowledge that they are the arbiters when it comes to the pronunciation of English. Dr. David Crystal (“the Stories of English,” 2004) who is himself an Englishman (or a Cornish man) wrote about an Englishman complaining in the 1860s how “The Queen’s English” had deteriorated at the hands of the Americans. That particular Englishman likely accepted the pronunciations of a northern Englishman ordering up his bangers and mash at a humble pub.

Crystal, by the way, is an English Linguistics Prof. Google him, look at his picture and you can probably guess at how his English sounds. I would never agree that it was more correct than mine. Even if I’d rather say “medicine” instead of “medsin,” or “My Lord” instead of “Mlewd,” it’s all very arbitrary and pointless because no one is right and no one is wrong.

Dr. Quance, in his general directions says one of the teacher’s aims is to “develop in the pupil the ability to recognize a new word anywhere, as one would recognize a new flower or a new bird ... and being sufficiently interested in it to learn its spelling” ...


Good luck with that.

An entertaining little book, “Tales Out of School” was published in Ontario in 1992 by Kathleen O’Reilly Scanlon. It’s a collection of former students’ memory pieces from across the country. There is one from a woman in a small Newfoundland community. In it, she recalls having concocted a lie about another student and how the teacher, having found her out, kept her after school. The teacher chose her words carefully. She finally said, “you know, lying is such a cowardly thing.” The admonished girl long-remembered the operative word, “cowardly.” A good lesson, that. The small Newfoundland community is identified in Scanlon’s book as “St. Shetts.”



Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: