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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.

Office 2008 Installer Needs Rosetta? Duh-oh!

Just something idiotic I wanted to share.

I rolled off a book project with a tight deadline right into a video project with an even tighter deadline, so I don’t really have time to blog, share new articles here, or even tweet. But I did run across this the other day while I was installing Microsoft Office 2008 on my 13-inch iMac running Snow Leopard:

Office Installer Needs Rosetta

Yes, the Office 2008 installer requires Rosetta to run. Office 2008 doesn’t need Rosetta. Just the installer does.

Hello? Microsoft? You want to make your installer compatible with current hardware and software?

Word 2004 Does Not Like Mac OS X 10.5.8

It may be time to update Office.

I just started work on a new book revision. The project requires me to take relatively lengthy, style-laden Word documents, turn on the Track Changes feature, and edit like crazy. It wasn’t long before I was pulling my hair out.

You see, the other day, I updated my iMac from 10.5.7 to 10.5.8. I suspect that something in that update just didn’t sit well with Word 2004, which I was still running on that computer. After all, the iMac has an Intel dual core processor. Office 2004 was written for the old PowerPC processor that came in older Macs. Whether the problem was Mac OS X’s inability to run the old PowerPC application or Word’s inability to run on the 10.5.8 update is a mystery to me. All I know is what I experienced: text editing so slow that I could type faster than Word could display the characters.

Revisions, RevisionsAt first I thought it might be the document itself. It’s 40 pages of text that utilizes about 20 styles and fields for automatically numbering figures and illustrations. The document was originally created about 10 years ago and has been revised and saved periodically for every edition of this book. It pops from my Mac to an editor’s PC and back at least five times during each revision process. I thought it might have some internal problems. So I used the Save As command to create a new version of the document. The new file was about 5% smaller in size, but had the same symptoms as the original.

Next I sent it over my network to my new 13-inch MacBook Pro. That computer’s processor isn’t as quick as my iMac’s and it has the same amount of RAM. The software on that computer was different, though. I had a developer preview version of Snow Leopard installed and, in preparation for a Microsoft Office 2008 project I’ll be starting in the fall, I’d installed Office 2008 with both major updates. I opened the file on that machine and it worked just fine. Great editing and scrolling speed. Exactly what I needed.

So I bit the bullet and installed Office 2008 on my iMac. And the two major updates. And two smaller updates that became available on August 5. It took hours — the updates totaled over 400 MB of downloads and I’m connected to the internet on a horrible 600-800 Kbps connection that likes to drop. (I’m living in a motel right now, traveling for my helicopter business.)

The result: All the performance issues are gone. Word is snappy yet again on my iMac.

You might ask why a person who writes about Microsoft Office applications had not yet upgraded to Office 2008. This all goes back to last year’s revision on this project. I actually did upgrade but then I downgraded. It was mostly because I needed the macro feature of Word, which wasn’t available on Word 2008. I’d upgraded my iMac last year, but when I decided to reformat my hard disk to ward off computer issues I was having (which were apparently caused by a bad logic board), I reinstalled Office 2004 instead of 2008. You see, I liked the old version better.

But it’s obvious to me now that I need to keep moving forward with the rest of my technology if I want it to perform as designed. Everything must be in sync. If I want to keep using Word 2004, I should use it on a computer that has the system software available during Word 2004′s lifespan. My old 12-inch PowerBook would be a good example. It has a G4 processor and runs Tiger. That’s as advanced as it will ever get. Office 2004 is a perfect match for it.

If there’s a moral to be taken away from this story, it’s simply that if you want your hardware and system software to be new or up-to-date, there will come a time when you’ll have to update the applications that run on it. Bite the bullet and do what you have to. It’ll be worth it.

In Defense of Microsoft Word

It does the whole job.

About a month ago, I was having trouble with my Mac and decided to head off any serious problems by reformatting my hard disk and reinstalling all my software from original program discs. In the old days, before we all had hard drives measured in gigabytes, I did this every single time there was a major system software update. Nowadays, it’s a lot of work and I avoid doing it if I can. My 24″ iMac is just over a year old and shouldn’t have been giving me problems, but I figured I’d try the reformat before bringing it to a genius. (Turns out, it was the swapping out of 2 GB of RAM for 4 GB of RAM that probably fixed the problem.)

For some reason, I didn’t do a typical install of Microsoft Office 2004. I thought I’d save disk space by omitting the proofing tools for the languages I don’t speak — which is every language except English. Word, which I use daily, worked fine — until I noticed that it wasn’t checking spelling as I type. Although my spelling is above average, I count on Word to put red squiggly underlines under my misspellings and typos. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get this feature to start working.

I sent an update to my Twitter account about this as I went about troubleshooting the problem. The result was an outpouring of suggestions from my Twitter friends for replacing Word or Office with other software, ranging from Open Source Word or Office replacements to Google Docs.

Whoa!

I fixed the problem by uninstalling and then reinstalling Word. Life went on. But it got me thinking about Office and Word and why so many people go out of their way to avoid both.

Word and Me

I should probably start off by saying that I have been using Microsoft Word since 1989 or 1990. Although I got Microsoft Works with my first Mac, I soon learned Word and began teaching it in a classroom setting. It was Word 4 for the Mac in those days; I don’t know what the corresponding version in Windows was because I didn’t use it or teach it. I’m not even sure if Microsoft Windows was a player back then.

I’ve used every version of Word for the Mac since then.

My first book about Microsoft Word was The Macintosh Bible Guide to Word 6. Word 6 sucked. It was a processor hog. I remember working with it in beta as I wrote my book about it. I remember whining to my editor, asking if he thought they’d fix the performance issues before the software went out. They did, but not very well. I disliked Word 6 and the way it handled outlines and “master documents.” Everything seemed to be “embedded.” It seemed as if they’d prettied up Word to look more Mac-like and had done the job by pouring maple syrup all over the inside of my computer, bogging things down.

Word 98 was a vast improvement. From then on, each version of Word was an improvement. The interface remained basically the same but features were added and solidified. Some of the features worked with Microsoft server software, which I didn’t have, didn’t want, and certainly didn’t need. All I cared about was that Word did what I needed it to do, using the same interface I knew from years of experience as a user.

The End of the World as We Know It: Office 2007

Then Office 2007 for Windows came out with its ridiculous “ribbon” interface. What the hell was Microsoft thinking? Take a standardized interface that your existing user base knows by heart and throw it out the window. Force them to learn a whole new interface. Keep telling them that it’s easier and maybe a handful of morons will believe you.

I had to use Office 2007 for two Excel books. The only good thing I can say about it is that the complete, radical interface change — I’m talking menus vs. ribbon here, not spreadsheet basics — made a book about the software necessary. How else would users figure out how to get the job done? Fortunately (for users, not authors) Office 2007 adoption is slow.

Woe is Me: Office 2008

Word 2008 Splash ScreenOf course, I’m a Mac user and use the Mac version of Office. I held my breath when Office 2008 came out. Thank heaven they didn’t get rid of the menu bar — although I don’t understand how they could. Office 2008 retains much of the Office 2004 interface. It just adds what Microsoft calls “Element Galleries” and the usual collection of features that 1% of the computing world cares about. Fortunately, you can ignore them and continue using Office applications with the same old menus and shortcut keys we all know.

I would have switched to Office 2008 — I even had it installed on my MacBook Pro — except for two things:

  • Its default document formats are not compatible with versions of office prior to Office 2007. That means someone using Word 2003 for Windows or Word 2004 for Mac can’t open my documents unless I save them in an Office 2004-compatible format. This isn’t a huge deal, but it is something I’d have to remember every single time I saved a document. I’d also have to remember not to use any Office feature that only worked with Office 2007 or 2008.
  • It does not support Visual Basic Macros. One of my publishers makes me use a manuscript template that’s chock-full of these macros. Can’t access the macros, can’t use the template. Can’t use the template, can’t use Office 2008.

(I wrote about these frustrations extensively in a Maria’s Guides article.)

So I’m apparently stuck with Office 2004 — at least for a while.

But do you know what? I’m perfectly happy with it.

Why I Like Word

I like Word. I really do. It does everything I need it to do and it does it well.

Sure, it has a bunch of default options that are set stupidly. I wrote about how to set them more intelligently in an article for Informit.com. (Read “Three Ways Word Can Drive You Crazy[er] and What You Can Do About Them.”) It certainly includes far more features than the average writer needs or uses. And despite what Microsoft might tell you, it’s probably not the best tool for page layout (I prefer InDesign) or mail merge (I prefer FileMaker Pro). But it does these things if you need to.

I use all of the basic word processing features. I use the spelling checker — both as I type and to correct errors. I like smart cut and paste, although I have the ridiculous Paste Options button turned off. I like AutoComplete and love AutoCorrect (when set up properly). I use all kinds of formatting, including paragraph and character styles, tables, and bulleted lists. I rely on the outlining features when preparing to write a book or script for video training material. I use the thesaurus occasionally when I can’t get my mind around the exact word I’m looking for, although the word I want is usually not listed.

I’ve used some of the advanced features, such as table of contents generation, indexing, and cross-references. These are great document automation features. Trouble is, I don’t usually use Word to create documents that require these features. I use InDesign for laying out my books, which are usually illustrated. (And I admit that I’m looking forward to trying out the new cross-referencing feature in InDesign CS4 for my next book.)

I don’t jump on board with every new Word feature. I prefer the Formatting toolbar over the Formatting Palette. I write in Normal view rather than Page Layout view. I create my own templates but don’t use the ones that come with Word.

I don’t use the grammar checker; I think it’s a piece of crap designed for people who know neither grammar nor writing style. I don’t like URLs formatted as links. (Who the hell wants links underlined in printed documents?) I don’t use any of the Web publishing features; I’d rather code raw HTML than trust Word to do it for me. I very seldom insert images or objects or anything other than text in my documents. I have InDesign for serious layout work. I don’t use wizards. WordArt is UglyI think WordArt is ugly and amateurish. I keep the silly Office Assistant feature turned off.

I admit that I don’t use any of the project features that work with Entourage — although I’d like to. I decided a while back to switch to Apple’s e-mail, calendar, and contact management solutions (Mail, iCal, and Address Book respectively) because they’d synchronize with .Mac (now MobileMe) and my Treo. Entourage probably does this now, but I really don’t feel like switching again. Am still thinking about this.

The point is, I use a bunch of Word features and I completely ignore a bunch of others. The features are there if I need them but, in Word 2004, they’re not in your face, screaming for attention. (Wish I could say the same about Word 2008.)

iWork with Apple Computers

iWork '09Lots of people think that just because I’m a Macintosh user — an enthusiast, in fact — I should be using Apple’s business productivity solution: iWork. For a while, I thought so, too.

I own iWork ’08. I just bought iWork ’09. I’ve tried Pages. I’ve really tried Pages. I wanted to use it. I wanted to break free of Microsoft Word.

But old habits are hard to break. No matter how much I tried to use Pages each time I needed to create a document, when I was rushed, I reached for Word. No learning curve — I already know it. After a while, I just stopped trying to use Pages.

Why Use a Bunch of One Trick Ponies?

I know a bunch of writers who swear by one software program or another for meeting their writing needs. They use special outliners to create outlines. They use special “writing software” that covers the entire screen with a blank writing surface so they’re not distracted by other things on their desktops. They use special software to brainstorm, footnote, and index.

I’ve tried these solutions and do you know what? They don’t make my life easier. Instead, they just give me another piece of software to learn and keep up to date and interface with other software. They make more work for me.

I’m not going to forget my Word skills and Word isn’t going to suddenly disappear off the face of the planet anytime soon. In fact, it’s far more likely for one of these one-trick ponies to disappear than a powerhouse with millions of users worldwide like Microsoft Office.

Thought PatternI remember ThoughtPattern, a program by Bananafish Software. I saw it demoed at a Macworld Expo in the early 1990s and thought it was the greatest thing in the world for organizing my thoughts and ideas. I was sure it would make me a better writer. I was so convinced, I bought it — and it wasn’t cheap. I used it for a while and rather liked it. Evidently, I was one of very few people who’d joined the ThoughtPattern revolution. In April 1993, it was discontinued. I was left with software that wouldn’t work with subsequent versions of the Macintosh system software. Worst of all, the documents I created with ThoughtPattern were in their own proprietary format. When the software stopped working, the contents of those documents were lost. (Do you think it was easy to find a screenshot from software that was discontinued 16 years ago?)

So perhaps you can understand my aversion to one-trick ponies that promise a better writing experience.

Will the same thing happen with Microsoft Word? I don’t think so.

I Don’t Compute in the Cloud

Google Docs was one of the solutions suggested to me by my Twitter friends. I guess they think it’s better to avoid the evil Microsoft empire in favor of the “we’re not evil” Google empire. Along the way, I should give up the interface and features I know from almost 20 years of experience with the software and rely on an online application that could change its interface daily. Oh, yeah — and keep my documents on someone else’s computer.

Yeah. Right. Good idea.

Not.

Until I’m part of a multinational corporation that requires its employees and consultants to keep all their documents on some remote server for collaboration purposes, I will not be computing in the cloud.

One of the things I like about keeping my documents on my own computer — rather than a remote server accessible by the Internet — is that the Internet is not always available. What do I do then? Stop working?

Security is an issue, too. While I don’t usually write much of a confidential nature, I don’t like the idea of not having control over my documents. Servers get hacked. I don’t want my work suddenly accessible to people who I don’t want seeing it.

I will admit that I use MobileMe’s iDisk feature to keep some documents on an Apple server. This makes it a tiny bit easier to access them from my laptop when I’m away from home. But I’ve recently moved to a new strategy. I bought a pocket hard drive that’s bigger than my computer’s Home folder. Before I hit the road with my laptop on a trip for business or pleasure, I sync this portable drive with my Home folder. I then have every single document on my computer with me when I’m away. The added benefit: complete offsite backup.

That’s My Case

That’s my defense of Microsoft Word. I rest my case.

Please understand that I’m not trying to convince a non-Word user to switch to Word. If you’re happy with something else, stick with it! That’s the precise reason I’m sticking with Word. I’m happy with it.

I guess the reason I wrote this post was to assure other people like me that there’s no reason to be ashamed of being a Word user. You do what’s right for you. There’s nothing really wrong with Word. If it makes your life easier, why switch?