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This is an abridged version for the QES website of an article written by Dr Bernard Lamb, formerly Reader Emeritus in Genetics in the Biology Department, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, and President of the Queen's English Society. It constitutes a damning condemnation of the British educational system of recent decades.

                           Spelling standards of undergraduates                        

Foreword: This article, although heavily edited, contains long lists of misspelled and improperly used words. It is not necessary that the reader plough through all these lists in detail. Their purpose here is merely to demonstrate the breathtaking ignorance of basic English among students that have made it into university in Britain. While some of these students were not of English mother tongue, Dr Lamb demonstrates that it was just such students who managed to out-perform their British counterparts. This article strongly supports the case for a fundamental revision of the education system in this country.

1.  INTRODUCTION

Spelling is important. Bad spelling gives the impression that the writer is ignorant, careless and unintelligent. It can mislead, confuse and frustrate the reader, and delay or prevent comprehension. For example, a non-dyslexic British undergraduate wrote: "Next, as a whole animal normally produced a large amount of sperm with an ejucation..."Interpreting ejucation as education does not make sense, so presumably ejaculation was intended, but the reader should not have to guess.

The present work is part of a semi-quantitative study of students' English started in the 1970s. This particular study was made of the spelling standards of current undergraduates, to see what kinds of errors were made, how often, what effect they had on the effectiveness of the written work, and how such errors might be prevented or reduced in future.

My national survey of the standards of UK undergraduates' English (Lamb, 1992a) showed that these studies of undergraduate biologists at one institute gave similar results to those of students of a wide range of arts, science, engineering and medical subjects in the 17 universities surveyed in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Most UK students have been through the same kinds of primary and secondary education, usually with the same kinds of English

2.  MATERIALS AND METHODS

These data were collected in academic year 1997-98, on 78 first-year students on a Cell Biology and Genetics course, and on 21 final-year students on an Applied Genetics course. Our biology undergraduates have a minimum of grades BCC at A-level and grade C at GCSE English, or equivalent overseas qualifications.

3.  RESULTS

3.1 One word / two word errors What constitutes a single word is fundamental. One word/two word errors often change the intended meaning, or produce nonsense.

One word written instead of two words: afew, alright, alot, aswell, to breakdown, eventhough, inexactly the same way, infact, innorder to, inorder to, ontop.

Two words written instead of one: an other, a specially (especially), counter balance, dis advantage, further more, in tact, off spring, over lap, over laps, tog ether, where as, which ever, with in. There were also cases of two separate words which should have been joined by a hyphen, or written as one word: cross subject reviews, extra nuclear genes(that means additional genes in the nucleus, while genes outside the nucleus — extra-nuclear genes — was the intended meaning), a hand out sheet, non desirable.

3.2 Single letters for doubled letters. (sometimes with doubled letters for single letters, too)

Some of these errors change the meaning but others do not.

abarant (aberrant), abberations, abberent (3%), aberation (aberration), abreviated, abreviation, accomodate, alotted, aparent, aparantly, apears, asexualy, assymetric, begining, controled, coton, counseling, dafodil, disect, disecting, disimilar, disolve, distiled, especialy, imposible, inteligence, inteligent, interupting, labeled, labeling, mamalian, mamals, mellenia (millennia), millenium, occasionaly, occurance, occured, occurence, occuring, oposite, parafin, posses/poses (possess), posseses, procede, program (for programme; in science, we distinguish between a computer program and a programme of work), realy, spilage, succesful (4%)/ succesfull, succesfully, to (for too, e.g. to hot, to close to), totaly, transfered, unecessary.

3.3 Double letters for single letters. (sometimes with single letters for doubled letters, too)

abberration, accross, ammend, annoculation (inoculation), anomally, appliccable, arrising, assexually, bananna, beggining, collonies, conserrve, defficent, defficiency, derrived, devellopment, developp, developped, dillution, dissadvantage, dissappeared, dissappointing, dissorder, extreemly, fillaments, gellatine, innaccuracies, innaccurate/innacurate, innacuracy, innoculate, innoculated, innoculating/inocculating, inocculation, looop, miss-aligned, misscarriage, neccessarily, neccessary, occassionally, occurrs, opperate, overidding, pippette, possition, preffer, pressence, proccessing, prooved, reccesive/reccessive/ressessive (recessive), reccombination, ressembling, too (for to, e.g., is too inherit), tripple, untill, whoose.

3.4 Word confusions. Some are confusions between completely different words, with different meanings, while some are different parts of speech for the same root word.

Abhorrent (aberrant), adopted (adapted), to advice (advise), are advice (advised), this affect (effect), analogous (analogues, noun), analogous (anomalous), analyse (analysis),asceptic (aseptic), asses (assess), assumed (deduced).
Baring (bearing), be (by), beech (beach), bellow (below), born (borne), braked (broken), braking (breaking), brow (brown).
Castrated (spayed), central (ventral), cheeper (cheaper), check/chick (cheek), colonies (colonise), maize comb (cob), a compliment of (complement), they compliment(complement), complimentation (complementation), a concreted conclusion (concrete), contaminates (contaminants), councilling / counciling (counselling), cure (treat).
Detects (defects), different (difference), discreet [not invasive] (discrete [separate]), divise (divide).
Effect (effective), an effected child (affected), this effects (affects), experience (experiment), extend (extent).
Father (further), fertile[adj.] (fertilise), fir (for), formally (formerly), to found (find), fungi/fungus (fungal).
Grew (grow).
He (it, of a fungus), a heal (heel), holts (halts).
Idealistic figures (idealised), illicit a response (elicit), inables (disables), incubate (incubator), incur (confer), infected (affected), infected (inoculated), infers (implies), its (it is).
Lager (larger), were laying (lying), lead (led), lease (least), to leech out (leach), less dead cells (fewer), the liming of the cheek (lining), loosing (losing), low (law).
Mail and femail flies (male, female), a heat-proof matt (mat), after matting (mating), melamine (a plastic, for melanin, a skin pigment), mineral (minimal), mongrel (Mongol),multiply (multiple).
Normal (normally).
Of [would of] (have), original (originally), ova (ovary), ovens (incubators), an overlap (overlay).
Patents (patients), peace (piece), permeations (permutations), physiological (physical), a poxy resin (epoxy), practise (noun, practice), preformed (performed), presented(present), prime (primer), principals of (principles), proprieties of something (properties).
Rage (range), has raised (risen), ransom mating (random), ration (ratio), reaper (reappear), reel (real), refrigeration (incubation), revel (reveal).
Scrapped (scraped), sole (role), roughly seeking (speaking), seize (size), sense (sensitive), solution (suspension), washing one's hands with soup (soap), specie (species), short statue (stature), strips (stripes), suffers (sufferers), sun (son), synthesis (synthesise).
Tacking (taking), tale (tail), a televise screen (television), than (then), their (there), is though to be (thought), thoughs (those), to have to/tow causes (two), too (two), transistor(transmitter), tree (three),
Verses [as in normal verses abnormal] (versus), very (every).
Where (were, [as in: "Although the colonies where smaller, there where more present."), who (which [referring to an object]).

3.5 Error frequencies of selected words.

The results show error frequencies for different words ranging from 5% to 82% for British students and from 0% to 75% for overseas students.

The overseas students were significantly better than British students ... and had an overall error level of 24%, which was significantly less than the 40% error level for British students

3.6 Bad spellings.

Some of these ignore simple spelling rules, e.g., recieve, or show a poor understanding of the words' origins, pronunciation or meanings, e.g. outway (outweigh).

Abscence / absense, abscent, accure (occurred), acheived / achived, addative, aeborne/ airborn/ air-borne/ air-bourne/ airbone/ airbourne (airborne), affacted, affectional(affectionate), alchohol, ambigous, amniocyntesis/ amniocience/ amnioscience/ amneocentesis/ amnioscentesis (amniocentesis), analine (aniline), analasys/ analisis, analyzation (analysis), annoculation (inoculation), anomylous, anormal (abnormal), apparant / apperant, applys, to apose (oppose), as apose to (as opposed to), arbitary, arisal, asterix (asterisk), attatched.
Baliure (failure), behavior/behavoir, belifs (beliefs), beleive, benefitial, bloked (blocked), burgandy (Burgundy).
Caffin (caffeine), caliculated (calculated), calonised (colonised), carcus (carcase), cebreal (cerebral), charchoal, chromasems /chromasomes (chromosomes), compitence, compleatly/ complitely, comprable, concidering, concievable, concieving, condence (condensed), condusive, confermed, contaminent, continuos, contridicts, convertes, convertion, convinient, corrispond, corrosponding, coverspip (coverslip), critised (criticised), critisms (criticisms).
Definate, degredation, delation/ deleation (deletion),deliterious, delt, dendancy (tendency), depature, desease, desinged (designed), detramental, develope, developement , devestating, devided, devision, dicide, didgets (digits), dieat (diet), dieing, diffence/differance (difference), disasterous, discarted (discarded), discribed, blood donar/ doner(donor), dumby (dumpy).
Ejucation (ejaculation), enitrely/ entirly (entirely), enoculation (inoculation), environement/ enviroment, enviromental, envolves, equaliberium / equilibruim, excreats (excretes),exept (except), existant, experements, explaination, extreame, extreemly.
Fangal (fungal), farely (fairly), fertalise, flouresce (fluoresce), flutuations.
Garunteed (guaranteed), genatalia/ genetalia/ gentalia, genitle (genital).
Haemoglobulin (haemoglobin), haemophelia (haemophilia), haemophyliac/ haemophilic/ haemophaeliac (haemophiliac), haermophrodite/ hermaphrodyte (hermaphrodite),Harleem (Haarlem), heigh (high), hereditability (heritability), hurds (herds).
Identicle, inaffective (ineffective), incubater, independant, indepentant, independantly/ indipendently, infinately, intelegence (intelligence), intellegent, interefference/interferance(interference), intergrated, interpretate, intresting, irrelavent.
Kernal (kernel).
Laballed, larvea, leathal, lossed (lost).
Maiting, mannar (manner), mantained, mays (maize), methodes, minature /minituare/ minture/ miniture (miniature), mold (mould), molercular, monitering, mouvements, mytated(mutated).
Necesserally, negitive, negligable, neitheir, nessecary, neutrition, neverthaless, non (none), noticable/noticible. Occaisons, occassionly/ occationally, occoured, occurance / occurrance , occure (occur), occures, opaic (opaque), opposit, origine, origionally, outway (outweigh).
Parantal (parental), parentaly, pathy (pathway), pedominantly, penisilium /Penecillium/ penicilin (Penicillium), perculiar, perental (parental), perl (pearl), perminimal (minimal),phsychological, piments (pigments), pocess, pocesses (possesses), poored off (poured), pores (spores), porpouse (purpose), possses (possess), practicle, in practise(practice, noun), praticals, precedure (procedure), precence/ prescence/ presense (presence), precotion (precaution), predominanently, pregent (pregnant), preperation, presant, preveously, probarbility, proccede (proceed), prodgeny, prospice (propitious), protocole, purpel (purple).
Randomn, recepient /recipian, recessif/ ressecive/ ressessive (recessive), recieve, reciprical (reciprocal), recombinate (recombine), recommised (recognised), relitively, remidied(remedied), repetative, reproducable, retardise (retardation), rist (wrist), rudementary/ rudamentary (rudimentary).
Safter (safety), sam (same), Samonella (Salmonella), satalight (satellite), segragate, sence, sensitif/ sensative, sentenic/ syntheic/ synthenic / seperate seringe (syringe),severn (seven), shaper (sharper), showes, silivary (salivary), similated (simulated), sinous (sinuous), som (sum), spontenous (spontaneous), stabalise, starchie, sterelising / steralizing, steralise (sterilise), summerise (summarise), suppliment, surposed/ surporsed (supposed), syndrom , synthetitize.
Temparature, tendancy, theorically (theoretically), theses (these), threated (treated), thouroughly, transfere/ transphere (transfer), transforme, transmiss (transmit), tretening(threatening).
Unables (enables), undergoe, uretus (uterus).
variaty, vegatative (vegetative), veiw, venteral (ventral), vigaress (vigorous), vigina (vagina), vice virsa, visable.
Wheather/ wether/ weather (whether), wheras, whithout, wilde (wild).
Yeild (many).

3.7 Latinate endings.

[Under this heading Dr Lamb deals with the misspelling of Latin scientific names which do not concern us here - Ed.]

3.8 Apostrophes and plurals.

Omissions of the possessive apostrophe were many and are not given here. The possessive pronoun its was often written as it's or its'. Apostrophes were wrongly put in some singular non-possessive nouns: genetic's and genetics'. They were also put in non-possessive plurals: albino's, embryo's, mosquito's, plateau's, ratio's, sufferer's. Apostrophes have sometimes been put in adjectives, adverbs and verbs, e.g., "It add's a preset amount..." A plural was sometimes given instead of the singular possessive, e.g., "companies products" (company's); a viruses (virus's).

There were various words in which the plural ending was not given, or was given wrongly: two ovary; copys, flys, ovarys; cattles, medias, offsprings, sexs, sheeps.

3.9 Unclear handwriting.

What counts as unclear handwriting is subjective, so has not been assessed quantitatively. Consistently difficult writing was a feature of less than 10% of the students, with many others having some unclear words. In several cases, I misinterpreted a word initially, before the context drove me to reinterpret it, e.g., the apposite sex (opposite), wine(urine) and unclear (nuclear).

4. DISCUSSION.

4.1 Standards.

With such high error frequencies, e.g. 78-82% in the accurate selected word data, and such a wide range of mistakes in sections 3.1 to 3.8, it is clear that even good undergraduates at a prestigious college have generally poor standards of spelling. They have had English lessons in primary and secondary schools, and have produced many items of returned written work in many subjects, including English. All teachers, if they are doing their job properly, should correct spelling errors in general and technical words, but many students tell me that their errors have generally not been corrected, so that they do not realise that they are errors. Many students also say that they have not been taught grammar, including punctuation, so do not understand apostrophes. If that is true, then

Important aspects of the National Curriculum in English are being ignored.

The one word / two word errors were almost never made by our undergraduates until 1992, when one student consistently wrote alot. Now several students a year make that particular mistake, and new errors occur each year. An emphasis on television rather than reading is a possible reason.

English language education in Britain must generally be poor because the overseas students, whose first language is often not English, were so much better at spelling than the equally intelligent British native-speakers of English. The overseas students have generally had more grammar teaching, more correction of errors, and more emphasis on correctness than have the British students, which suggests easy ways of improving British standards.

The worst spellers by nationality in first year(with the number of different errors by that student in brackets) were : UK (31 errors by that student), UK (24), Israel (24), Japan (21), UK (19) and Yugoslavia (17). In third year, the worst spellers were from UK (28 errors), Sri Lanka (27), Singapore (19), UK (15) and Yugoslavia (14). Even some of the strangest errors were made by students of British nationality and ancestry.

Staff are also often poor at spelling

sometimes setting students a bad example with handouts containing a range of errors. I have to make a lot of corrections to staff submissions for departmental publications.

4.2 How errors can be reduced.

A large improvement is possible if students have their attitude to accuracy changed by showing them the great effects that these errors can have on their perceived intelligence, on the effectiveness of their writing, and on their marks. This can persuade them to make greater use of dictionaries and other aids for checking scientific and ordinary words.

The teaching in schools of rules of spelling and of the need for accuracy, and the application by students of a few simple rules of spelling, can greatly improve standards. A fuller account of helpful rules, using prefixes and suffixes and learning word origins, is given by Pechenik and Lamb, 1994. Some rules need not be memorised exactly if students can regenerate them from known examples.

The rule "i before e except after c if it rhymes with bee" takes care of common errors such as acheive, beleive, recieve and yeild. The few exceptions include protein.

Using the pronunciation of related words helps with unstressed vowels which may not be pronounced clearly. For example, doubts about definite/ definate are easily resolved by pronouncing the related word definition, where the third vowel is a clear i, not a.

Simply breaking a word into prefix + stem or stem + suffix helps with many single or double consonant errors, e.g., disappeared is dis + appeared, so cannot be dissappeared,while misspell is mis + spell.

In words like advice, licence and practice, where the nouns have c and the verbs have s, the difference is easily memorised from the clearly different pronunciations in "the advice" and "to advise".

Adverbs are usually formed from an adjective + ly, hence normal + ly gives normally, not normaly; anomaly is not an adverb, and has a single l.

Words of one syllable and a single final consonant after a single vowel have the final consonant doubled when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel: hop, hopped (not hoped);plan, planning (not planing). In words of one syllable ending in two consonants or having a doubled vowel before the final consonant, you do not double the final consonant when adding suffixes: harp, harping; cool, cooled.

For dealing with many of the students' single/double consonant errors, there is a very useful but little-taught rule. In words of two or more syllables ending in a single consonant preceded by a short vowel, you do not double the final consonant when adding a vowel suffix if the final syllable is unstressed, but you double it if the final syllable is stressed. Hence al-ter, altered; of-fer, offered; but be-gin, beginning; oc-cur, occurred; re-fer; referred. If the stress pattern changes on adding the suffix, go by the stress pattern in the final word, e.g., re-fer but reference. A final l does not usually follow these patterns, usually being doubled in Britain but not in the USA: tra-vel, travelled (UK), traveled (USA); x is never doubled.

Learning common word origins is an enormous help with spelling and meaning, even if the students know no Greek or Latin, so learning one word's origin helps with the spelling and meaning of many other words.

4.3 How the mistakes affect the effectiveness of the written work.

The many errors which change the meaning, such as most of the word confusions, greatly reduce the efficient communication of the intended sense. A biologist who does not know the difference between matting and mating, or ovary and ovum, or patents and patients, is not a good biologist. Failing to distinguish between parts of speech, such asanalyse and analysis shows a basic ignorance of language and meaning, as does making alot from two separate words.

4.4 Would simplified spelling help?

A change to a simplified spelling system (sss) would induce its own chaos during the change, and people brought up with the existing spelling system would tend to go on using that, or use a mixture of new and old spellings. An undergraduate brought up on an sss would have to consult older articles and books using traditional spellings, and might misinterpret some of the old spellings, getting the meanings wrong.

5. CONCLUSIONS

The very high error frequencies on all kinds of words show poor standards of teaching spelling in schools, and a woeful lack of correction of errors in primary and secondary schools. If a student has never been told that a particular spelling is wrong and that it gives a bad impression or the wrong meaning, one cannot expect the student ever to get it right. Many of the errors affect the meaning and understandability of the work.

I therefore strongly advocate the teaching of spelling rules, prefixes and suffixes, and of word origins, in schools, and the consistent correction of errors by all teachers of all subjects. That would really bring home to students that errors are noticed and do matter. Once the students start finding and correcting their errors, it greatly reduces the time taken for teachers to make corrections. Many teachers of English in schools support these views, although some are prevented from implementing them by subject heads, head teachers and inspectors.

Although the overseas students did not have very high standards of spelling, their much better performance than that of the British students shows that better standards are achievable from better teaching, more correction, and by taking more care.