Spelling Checkers Don’t Work if You Ignore Them

Reminding my brain not to block out the red underlines that indicate potential spelling problems.

Check Spelling as You Type has been a built-in feature of many word processors for years. It’s now in most applications I use — including my Web browsers, for Pete’s sake! — and the red squiggly or dotted underlines are an integral part of my writing life.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about — do you live in a cave? — I’m referring to the feature that indicates when a word you’ve typed may have been spelled wrong. This is supposed to flag the word so you can check and, if necessary, correct it.

A Blessing…

I vaguely remember when this feature first appeared in Microsoft Word years ago. It was a blessing — and a curse.

I initially loved the feature because it often identified my typos. I’m a touch typist and can get up to 80 words per minute when I’m tuned in. But those aren’t always error-free words. Check Spelling as You Type was a great feature for finding typos as I worked, eliminating the need to run a spell check periodically or at the end of document creation.

As you might expect, it also found spelling errors. My spelling was always pretty good, so it usually found more typos than actual spelling mistakes. But that’s okay. An error is an error and I want to remove all of them from my work, whenever I can.

…and a Curse

But over the years, I’ve found some problems with the Check Spelling as You Type feature — and spelling checkers in general.

The feature does not identify all typos or spelling errors as errors. For example, suppose you type bit but you really meant but. A spelling checker doesn’t see any problem with that, so it won’t flag it. That means you can’t depend on a spelling checker to proofread your work. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, a grammar checker would likely identify this as a problem. As well as the sentence you’re reading right now, because it isn’t really a proper sentence. And this one, too.)

So you’ve got a feature that makes you lazy by doing about 90% of the proofreading work for you, as you type. If you neglect to do the other 10% of the proofreading work, you could be very embarrassed — especially if you write professionally and editors expect your work to be error-free.

The unflagged error that zaps me most often? Typing it’s instead of its. At least I know what it’s supposed to be.

It’s worse, however, for people who don’t know the correct word. How many times have you seen people use then instead of than? There instead of they’re or their?

The feature has degraded my spelling skills. In the old days, before spelling checkers, I simply knew how to spell. If I wasn’t sure of the spelling of a word I needed, I looked it up in — can you imagine? — a dictionary. It made it worthwhile for me to actually learn how to spell words. Knowing the proper spelling saved me time in the long run.

But now, I simply type the word as I think it might be spelled and wait to see if it’s flagged. If it is, I use a context menu — Control-click or right click the word — to choose the word I meant to type. Yes, it’s convenient. But I seem to be doing it an awful lot more than I used to use a dictionary.

(Perhaps it’s also expanding my vocabulary by making it easier to use words I’m not as familiar with? There’s something there.)

The feature identifies any word it does not know as a potential spelling error. That means that if your document is filled with jargon, technical terms, place names, or other words that do not appear in a dictionary, those words will be flagged as possible errors. The word unflagged, which appeared earlier in this post, was also flagged. Is it an error? Or does my spelling checker simply not recognize it? Seems like a word to me, so I let it go.

And herein lies my biggest problem: I’m so accustomed to seeing words flagged in my documents that I’ve managed to tune out the red underline. (It’s kind of like the way we all tune out advertisements on Web pages these days.) This happened to me just the other day. I typed the word emmerse in a blog post. My offline editing tool flagged it with a red dotted underline — as it just did here. But for some reason, I didn’t see it. I published the post with the error in it. A friend of mine, who referred to himself as a “spelling Nazi,” e-mailed me to point out my error. I meant immerse, of course. He knew that. Readers likely knew that. But I got it wrong and I shouldn’t have. How embarrassing!

Spelling Checker

Here’s a look at the spelling check feature in ecto, my offline blog composition tool of choice. It works just like any other spelling checker. (And yes, I do compose in HTML mode.)

The correct way to go about this is to look for every single possible spelling error and resolve it so those red lines go away. That means learning or adding the unknown word so it’s never flagged again or ignoring it so it doesn’t bother you in this document. All of this should be done with the appropriate menu command. Simply telling your brain to ignore a problem just sets you up to be blind to it when it occurs. That’s not how the software was designed to work.

The Point

This post has a point — most of mine do — and here it is: spelling checkers, including any Check Spelling As You Type feature, are only as good as allow them to be. Use them, but don’t depend on them. Follow up on any flagged words and resolve them using the software so the red underlines go away.

Spelling checkers are just a tool. Like any other tool, it won’t help you if you don’t use it correctly.

2 thoughts on “Spelling Checkers Don’t Work if You Ignore Them

  1. “The feature has degraded my spelling skills.”

    I think this affects almost everyone who uses Word. You’re not alone. That’s why using the old pen and paper every now and then is useful.

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