WriteCheck Blog

When Spellcheckers Attack

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services Attention! Toe world prospectors unlock the pod tip lighter, alas the writer costing excess to doctor morose stool sheets and otter reference spices, approving the writer to pricier acetate drabs free of misspellings, grimy eras, and seasonal work shoes.

I hope that’s clear. It certainly ought to be, since the whole paragraph was checked using the Microsoft Word spellchecker tool.   In order to achieve this paragraph, all I had to do was look for wavy red lines underneath words (there were lots of them!), run the spellchecker, and click CHANGE for each suggested improvement.  And…voila!  Not a single word is misspelled!

Too bad it’s total gibberish.

In order to correct misspellings in that messy draft—in order to produce a clear, informative paragraph—I should have followed up on each of the spellchecker’s “suggestions” with close, thoughtful inspection (Do I really mean “toe world”? What’s a “pod tip lighter”?) and, in some cases, a trip to the dictionary (“Acetate” just doesn’t sound quite right…).  If I had done that—if I had not entrusted my spellchecker with the entire task of proofreading—the results would have been considerably less embarrassing:

The word processor, unlike the old typewriter, allows the writer instant access to dictionaries, style sheets, and other reference sources, allowing the writer to produce accurate drafts free of misspellings, grammar errors, and questionable word choices.

Indeed, the spellchecker is a great tool—a wonderful first line of defense against typos and misspellings.  Example: When I typed “embarrassing” earlier, I left out one of the Rs (I often do—“embarrassing” often embarrasses me), and that wavy red line saved me. But by itself it won’t save me—or you—from startling and often hilarious word errors.   To your spellchecker, gym and gin, marriage and mirage, udder and utter, paste and paced—they’re all good, regardless of what you are actually trying to say.

When you use your spellchecker and it suggests a substitution for a misspelled word, always:

  1. Take note of that suggestion and make sure it is the word you meant to type.
  2. If you’re not sure—if you think it’s correct, but you can’t claim to know it’s correct, then stop and get out your dictionary.

If you don’t own a dictionary, there are some free online: Merriam-Webster has a particularly helpful one.  Now, when you don’t know how to spell a word it can be a challenge to find it in the dictionary, but this is a challenge worth meeting.

  • For one thing, the more time you spend rummaging through dictionaries and matching spelling with meaning, the more skilled you’ll become.  Once you become comfortable with your dictionary, you’ll realize what a fantastic resource it is.  Dictionaries don’t just give spellings and meanings: they provide synonyms and usage examples.  They even tell you what part of speech the word is.  The dictionary—not the spellchecker—is the writer’s trustworthy companion.
  • For another, taking this issue seriously will save you from handing in papers confusing phenomena with pneumonia, balcony with baloney, and madam with madman.

So:  Treat your spellchecker as a helpful underling.  It’s good at guessing, not knowing. It’s not the boss of you.

 

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