I have the 1946 edition of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and nowhere in that dictionary is the schwa to be found. Not only was the symbol not used, but the word schwa (or shwa) is not even in that dictionary. The symbol appears only once, as a footnote to the Guide to Pronunciation with the warning that (at that time) it was not a symbol of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
The schwa was supposed to be used to indicate those rare times when a vowel has no clearly recognizable sound – for example the vaguely u sound of the io in nation, which we pronounce nāshun.
Almost immediately, lazy lexicographers and sloppy copy editors began to sprinkle the schwa everywhere they thought it would fit. Today it can be found infesting every page of every dictionary and has even invaded school textbooks. The result is a deplorable decline in pronunciation accompanied by an equally deplorable decline in spelling.
In his famous Blue Back Speller (1824), Noah Webster listed col-lec-tor as the correct pronunciation. In my 1946 edition it is ko-lek-ter, which is only slightly different after one hundred and twenty years. Today, a mere sixty years later, the dictionary has reduced it to ku-lec-tur. Two ugly grunts and only one genuine vowel!
Yes, there are schwas in English, quite a number of them (the -tion ending is a good example), but there is no excuse for adding even more. We can hardly blame our teenagers for mumbling and grunting when they try to communicate if they are constantly subjected to adults on radio and television who are too lazy to pronounce their words correctly.
As for spelling…how on earth can you spell a word correctly if you don’t enunciate it correctly? I am not Henry Higgins demanding that everybody speak the Queen’s English like a Victorian Englishman. I am just a retired English teacher who is very worried about the rapid deterioration of spoken English and the sorry state of spelling.
One way we can help our children (and perhaps ourselves, too) is to teach them to develop a deep suspicion of the schwa. When in doubt, ignore the pronunciation guide. Sound out the syllables, slowly and clearly. And remember that clear enunciation is an invaluable aid to good spelling.