Dr Winford James

Elevated trivia

By Dr. Winford James
October 23, 2005

Trivia are pieces of information or concerns that are of little or no importance to anyone though particular trivia may be interesting to different people. Because they are information, they will occupy our time and attention every now and then, but they will give way - perhaps I should say 'should give way' - easily to demonstrably more important concerns. Unfortunately, however, there are many trivia held by highly important (and self-important) people in this country which, despite the best contradictions, simply refuse to give way. One such piece of trivia is the concern of many teachers that American spellings of English words should be disallowed, corrected, and penalized.

Every so often, in the midst of serious discussion - on, say, a topic like the elements of a good textbook - somebody will think it important to raise the issue of American spelling in an English language textbook. Because they are thoroughly indoctrinated British neo-colonials, they will usually be possessed of the view that American spellings are out of place in such a textbook, but they will strategically ask if the spellings are allowed and on what grounds. What they really want to do is to condemn the spellings out of hand as aberrations from good practice. Far more important questions are begging to be asked - like: Should textbooks have remedial sections? Should they be focused on teaching through essentially an abundance of mechanical exercises or through a judicious mix of clear objectives, presentations and activities for critical thinking, and problem-solving exercises? Instead, somebody thinks it more important to focus on correcting American spelling!

For such a person, it is important to cross or red-mark the following spellings: center, favor, program. The words are wrongly spelt because they are spelt the British way. A student will lose marks because of these non-British spellings. She might even be considered to be not so bright.

And yet millions of people consider these spellings right while accepting the British equivalents also. Certainly, Americans have no question that they are right. And many of our secondary students who are taught they are wrong go to American colleges and universities where there is no question about such spellings. If students were producing spellings like senter, faivor, and pogram, you could understand the concern since such spellings are not accepted anywhere. But to disapprove of spellings simply because of a bias towards British practice must surely be to elevate trivia.

Interestingly, most people who insist on British spelling do not correct the following spellings, all of which are American: gray, license (noun), traveler, worshiping, jail, anemia, and leaped. The reason is quite simply that they do not know all the spellings that are distinctly American, only a few. Perhaps if they knew… . Luckily (for our students), the vast majority of English words are spelt the same way in America and Britain!

The prejudice against the few distinct American spellings is even more untenable when we consider that it does not extend to word usage. Most people who treat American spellings as misspellings do not treat American word preferences as wrong. So they see nothing wrong - and rightly so! - with words like the following: trunk (of a car), truck, gasoline, drugstore, and movie. The British preferences are boot, lorry, petrol, pharmacy, and film. But you will not hear or see our British English purists using these words, largely (but not exclusively) because they are not aware that the American list is not British. Indeed, they are not aware that American word and phrase preferences run into the thousands. Suppose they knew?...

Why would people hold such inconsistent positions on language use and insist that students adhere to them? What does it matter if children write 'er' in 'center' or 'or' in 'favor'? How are 're' and 'our' superior? How are they indices of intelligence? What is lost? Who is disadvantaged? Educationally, the insistence on spelling words only in the British way is irredeemably trivial; and it also fails the test of commonsense.

It is time we stopped elevating trivia, but that is easier said than done. There was a 'Death March' against crime yesterday, and the cabinet and other people like Pastor Cuffie did not participate or think they should participate. And did you hear the reason they gave? They said that though the march was a good idea (in sending a powerful message of popular disenchantment with crime), the label 'Death' was deeply offensive! They let a trivial matter like a label (they would have preferred something like 'Life'!) prevent them showing solidarity against something they said they believed to be a very worthwhile cause.

Can you believe it?!