December 5, 1997

Keep that 'e' away from potato

Wayne Hansen appears, from his letter in the November 21 Folio, to have been misled by his teachers: the spelling potatoe has been regarded as wrong in British English for more than a hundred years. The most recent instance of its deliberate use in print which is known to me is from a text of 1875, and it had been rare for a hundred years before that. Dan Quayle's belief that the form potatoe was correct was a source of as much innocent pleasure in the United Kingdom as in Canada.

Mr. Hansen is quite right, though, to say that the matter was a trivial one. That is the point: following the extremely difficult spelling conventions of English is in many senses trivial, but it has great symbolic significance. Even a trivial divergence from those conventions can, as Dan Quayle knows, make a person look very foolish. That is a social fact that language users, and particularly those who teach language use, have to accept and work with. When Folio points out that research at this university may help future students to follow the spelling conventions of the language they use, that doesn't seem to me like evidence that there's "something else wrong with this country."

John Considine
Adjunct Professor Department of English

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