Never trust spell checkers

Spell checkers do not check spelling. But you should always run your finished piece through the software to save countless subtle and not-so-subtle mistakes.

Spell checkers compare the text you designate with words in their database. If they find a match, they don’t say anything. If they don’t find a match, they indicate an error. In the first sentence of this paragraph, I first typed “test,” when I meant “text.” No spell checker will catch that misspelling.

Spell checkers tell you that they don’t recognize a word, not that it’s misspelled. Mine says in little type: “Not in dictionary.”

Let’s test it with a sentence: “Yore to feat shoed tin tows,” meaning “Your two feet showed ten toes.” (Actually, if you spell that badly, you shouldn’t be reading this blog.) Congratulations, my spell checker says no problem. The misspelled words in the test sentence are all homonyms, words that sound alike but are spelled differently.

As I said in my previous blog post, spell checkers perform unpredictably with names. Mine will endorse “Kennedy,” but object to “Kenedy,” which just happens to be the correct spelling for the town and county of Kenedy in Texas, the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation (also in Texas), and the singer Rachel Kenedy.

The spell checker will tell you that you’ve left out the space between two words, unless the resultant letters add up to a word, as in “andiron” when you meant “and iron.” It won’t spot two spaces where you intended one.

Most word processors have another form of spell checker, usually called something like “AutoCorrect,” which works on opposite principles. It searches for misspelled rather than correctly spelled words, and fixes them as you type. It compares what you type with its database of misspellings. For instance, I type “orginization” every time I mean “organization,” and spell “chairman” as “chariman.” (Maybe I’m tired of corporate life.) So I added those two misspellings to AutoCorrect.

You can also search for words you commonly misspell, and either fix them or use the “Replace All” function. Many editors search for words they don’t want ever to appear, such as obscenities. Smart newspapers editors always search for “pubic,” because it’s so easy to drop the “L” out of “public.”

All of these errors are hard to see on a screen, but spell checkers highlight them for you. You can back up the software by reading aloud, preferably from a printed version.

I just spell-checked this post, and it caught two words I deliberately spelled wrong, and it labeled “blog” as misspelled.

[Ever had a disaster with a spell checkers?]

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Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 2:00 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The program we used in the 1990s at the Omaha World-Herald also checked word usage. They filmed part of the movie “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” in Nebraska that year, a movie about drag queens. The grammar/spell checker identified queen as a gender-specific term and suggested monarch, sovereign or ruler as alternatives. And spellcheckers sometimes want to change my name to Butterfly. It’s been spelled worse.

  2. Thanks, Steve. Every time I try the usage checker, I break up laughing and can’t get back to whatever I was writing.

  3. Sometimes just the break you need.

  4. […] Never trust spell checkers […]


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