Thursday, December 1, 2011

Never Trust Your Spell-Checker

by Laurie Boris

It’s all Maria Mariana’s fault. She was one in a group of six linguists from Georgetown University who, back in the 70s, first developed an automated way to check spelling and grammar on word processing programs for IBM. Perhaps she meant well. Thought it would be a good thing to create this seductive monster that can batch-attack the often time-consuming and ponderous human task of checking one’s work for errors.

Backfire, Maria. Semi-total epic FAIL! Spell-check has made us lazy. It has lulled us into a false sense of security with its offers to change your grammar or correct that questionable word. We all have stories of spell-checking failure, some with embarrassing and humorous results. Here are a few more reasons you should never trust that pathetic plug-in with your important work.

1. Spell-checkers are notoriously obtuse.

Consider the following passage: “My physical therapist worked out a weight-bearing routine for me that stimulates my osteoblasts, which are the cells that build new bone.” The spelling and grammar checker in my version of Microsoft Word wants to replace “stimulate” for “stimulates.” It believes that the subject that is being stimulated is plural…actually, I have no idea what it believes. It’s just wrong.

2. Spell-checkers can’t parse your intentions.

Example dialogue: “Pete’s working again.” Spell-check suggestions for this alleged error in “subject-verb agreement” include “Pete’s is working” or “Pete’s was working.” The writer’s intention was to state that Pete is once again gainfully employed. But good old SC doesn’t know this, and assumes that something of Pete’s is now or formerly was functional.

3. Spell-checkers can’t find missing words.

“Ted raced the sink” has a rather different meaning than “Ted raced to the sink.” In a long document like a novel manuscript, particularly one you’ve been poring over draft after draft, your brain will supply the missing word. So, you may miss it in the proofreading and lead your readers to believe Ted has been imbibing and sincerely believes he and the sink are in competition.

4. Spell-checkers can auto-correct you into situations in which you do not want to be auto-corrected.

A former colleague, who normally relied upon his assistant to correct and send out his correspondence, decided to give her a break and take care of some of his own. In an e-mail that went out to the entire sales staff, he intended to ask for their opinions on a new sales program. He ended with, “I look forward to seeing your evaluation.” Only, because of his less-than-stellar keyboarding skills, his spell-check program decided he meant to type “ejaculation.” Yeah. It went out that way.

4. Spell-checkers won’t tell you if your formatting is inconsistent.

This is one reason why you should never abandon something as format-dependent as your press kit, resume, or book proposal solely to the eye-chips of your computer program. It won’t tell you that you’ve ended some bullet-text items with periods and left them off others. It won’t tell you a heading is in the wrong font or tabbed in too far. It’s CRUCIAL to swing these details by human eyeballs.

5. Spell-checkers don’t measure up to humans…at least not yet.

Flawed as we are, we’re still better than a machine at certain tasks, like knowing what we meant to say. Don’t have time to proofread or can’t tell if your participles are dangling or your infinitives are split? Hire a human.

Laurie Boris is the author of The Joke's on Me, from 4RV Publishing. She also blogs about writing, books, and the language of popular culture at


  1. Great information. There also the case of mistaken identity: bear and bare; hare, here, hear and so on. You have to watch those spell checkers.

    Karen Cioffi Writing and Marketing

  2. Actually in #1 your grammar/spell check was correct. Let's look at the sentence:
    “My physical therapist worked out a weight-bearing routine for me that stimulates my osteoblasts, which are the cells that build new bone.” Routine is what "that" refers to; therefore, routine stimulates. English teachers never really retire. *sigh*

    However, spell check and grammar check are often wrong. That's why we need to know what is correct.


  3. This post will definitely help me out in studying for this coming exam. *shudders* Subject-verb agreement is a tough one since it's the opposite. Trusting Spell-check never worked for the writing portions since it keeps getting spelling/grammar all wrong.

  4. Spell check doesn't know the difference between "its" and "it's" and always insists that wrong. It's nervy like that.

  5. I have a love/hate relationship with spell check.