Spell Check Isn’t Your Friend

Posted September 12, 2011 by Amanda Shofner in Editing / 0 Comments

Editing truth: spell check is your frenemy.

While I won’t deny it can be incredibly useful, especially for bad spellers, spell check can very easily lead you astray. Why? Spell check doesn’t check your spelling.

It compares the words you wrote against the computer’s internal dictionary. If a word isn’t on the list, it’s flagged as incorrect. If a word’s on the list, it’s considered correct. When spell check operates this way, it presents two problems:

1. Words spelled correctly are flagged as incorrect even when they’re not

Language is constantly changing and your computer’s dictionary isn’t always hip on all the new words. And compiling a list of ALL the words in a single language is impossible.

Many field-specific words aren’t included in a computer’s list. I can’t tell you how many times I encountered this problem during my TESL program.

And don’t even get me started on last names. All my papers light up like Christmas lights from “incorrectly” spelled words that are actually correctly spelled last names—my own last name included.

2. Spell check doesn’t consider context, so even if a word is spelled correctly, it may not always be grammatically correct or the word you want

And no, grammar check might not catch it, either. For proof, go read the poem called Candidate for a Pullet Surprise written by Jerrold H. Zar.

To make a suggestion for a misspelled word, your computer considers your spelling and other formulas computer programmers create. If your spelling isn’t close enough to the correctly spelled word, you may be SOL. The word you’re searching for might not even be the first suggestion. Spell check often gives you multiple suggestions, and the first one in line could be wrong, too.

Computers are brilliant machines, but they’re no substitute for a human eye and brain. Computers don’t have brains of their own. (Yet.) You do. You must have the final word in what’s correct and what isn’t.

Moral of the story: spell check is a useful tool, but it’s not infallible, and it shouldn’t be trusted blindly. Spell check isn’t a fix-all.

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