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Reasons not to trust your spellchecker

It’s easy to rely on your Mac or PC’s spelling and grammar check programs to pick up any errors in your text. After all, they read every word, don’t they? Yes, they do. And generally they’ll pick up obvious spelling errors, or the tricky words that don’t follow the rule of ‘i before e, except after c’. So you may be thinking “who needs a proofreader when I can use my spellcheck?”

Who needs a proofreader? Everybody who writes a piece of copy that they want others to read and understand, that’s who!

News flash: Computers aren’t human!

The algorithms behind spellcheckers and grammar checkers work to spot obvious errors, but they don’t work to pick out words that sound write but are the wrong word. In other words, just as in the previous sentence, the algorithms can’t pick homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings). Did you spot ‘write’ for ‘right’? It’s possible to write a sentence in which many words are grammatically incorrect homophones, and spellcheck will pass it all as correct. But your readers will struggle to make sense of it, or think you have difficulty spelling.

Here’s a humorous example of spellchecker’s inability to recognise homophones as the wrong word in the right place:

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise 
by Mark Eckman and
Jerrold H. Zar

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.
Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

Names, names, names!

It’s not only homophones that spellcheck or grammar check is blind to. Names can cause enormous problems. It will not recognise them and will mark them as wrong if they are (correctly) an alternative spelling. For instance, the northern Italian city of Torino, home of the FIAT (Turin).  You will have to teach your spellcheck which correct version of the name you need to use. Shakespeare apparently spelled his name in three or four different ways, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the ‘correct’ spelling of ’Shakespeare’ was decided on. What if you’re quoting an older reference work referring to the poet and dramatist as ’Shakspere’? Spellcheck will mark it wrong. The Hungarian form of the name ‘Elizabeth’ is Erzébet. Chances are, spellcheck will query it.

Possessives and contractions

It’s easy to get confused between its and it’s, or theirs and there’s – very similar words with very different meanings. Use the wrong one – for example it’s (it is) for its (the possessive form of it) and chances are spellcheck won’t pick it up, because after all it’s correctly spelled, although grammatically wrong.

What about typos?

Everyone makes typos. We can blame it on being in a hurry, or the so-called ‘fat fingers’ where we hit two keys at the same time. Fortunately, spellcheck will generally pick up typos, unless somehow your typo results in a real word. Or sometimes it ignores completely mangled words you’d hope it would pick up. I had mis-spelled ‘because’ as ‘beacsue’, and my spellcheck completely ignored it!

Never trust autocorrect!

Some people say autocorrect is evil. I won’t go as far as that, but I will say it’s dangerous. The autocorrect algorithm ’thinks’ it ‘knows’ what you are trying to type. Nine times out ten it will replace a correct, if mis-spelled or incomplete word with a different one. Not what you were trying to say. Who’s writing your piece – you or the computer?

As well as replacing your own words with its, autocorrect can make you lazy with your vocabulary. If you consistently have trouble with spelling a word, letting autocorrect finish it for you means you never master that word, or go looking for a different one that might be better for that sentence. Your computer is only a tool. YOU are the writer, don’t let your computer tell you what to say.

A second pair of eyes

As stated above, your computer is not human. Although it ‘reads’ your text, it doesn’t possess the eyes or the brain of a human, which is why it doesn’t spot all the errors. If your written work is important in presenting yourself and your ideas or products to the world, you need a second pair of eyes – a proofreader – to pick up the errors that you can’t see, no matter how much you reread and run spellcheck through.

Until next time,



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