The danger of trusting spellcheckers

Mention spelling, and most of us feel our hearts skip a beat. It’s a throwback to our anxiety about those word lists we were quizzed about every Friday morning as children, and we still become embarrassed when someone points to an error in our writing.

Of course, now we count on our devices to let us know when we fail to spell correctly. Those wiggly red lines under words send us a warning, and a right-button click shows us what the device or its software believes we meant to type. Autocorrect even saves us from having to think about it (but often, at our peril or amusement).

We welcome the help from these spellcheckers, so much so that we trust them more than we probably should. The first practical spellchecker arrived on this planet shortly after I did (I’m reasonably certain there’s no connection between those entrances), and the technology has since improved by orders of magnitude.

But spellcheckers aren’t perfect — not yet, anyway. The problem isn’t the technology itself. It’s all about this crazy stew of languages that became what we know as modern English. It would be tough to come up with a crazier way to delineate words, phrases, and clauses than what English speakers are forced to contend with every day. How is it that placing “e” and “a” together sounds one way in “please” but completely different in “bread” or in “steak” or “heart”?

If you paid attention in school, you know the reason. Words that found their way into English often retain the spelling quirks from their original languages. In a single paragraph, you might include words that were coined in French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Urdu. The spellings may have shifted slightly from the originals, but the pronunciation remains the same.

There’s another complication. Often, the amalgam we call English includes a single spelling for multiple meanings. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “set” has 430 potential meanings. Its listing in the OED is longer than some short novels.

All this explains why simply relying on those trusty spellcheckers to keep us from making spelling mistakes is hardly a safe move. There are several ways in which spellcheckers may allow errors to creep into — or simply remain — in something you’ve developed, among them:

Context. Although they’re getting better at it, spellcheckers often don’t understand subtleties in the context of what we write. So if we type “please bare with me,” they may truly believe we’re asking everyone to get naked instead of granting us the patience “please bear with me” requests.

Homophones. The terror of elementary-school students, homophones are those words that are spelled differently but sound identical. “They’re,” “their,” and “there” are the classic example. I’ve encountered many situations in which a spellchecker chose the wrong version for what I was writing.

Idioms and expressions. Despite its confusion, English is a rich language that’s full of expressions and idioms. A common example of how this can go awry is when someone writes “for all intensive purposes” — all of those words are spelled correctly, but the correct idiom the writer intended to use was “for all intents and purposes.” Another commonly misheard (and subsequently misspelled) business phrase is “dog-eat-dog world,” which sounds far more terrifying than the commonly misused “doggy-dog world.”

Foreign expressions. Spellcheckers may not have access to a library of foreign words that may be used in writing. A great example is the French exclamation “Voilà!”, which spellcheckers may try to assign an alternate spelling, such as Walla.

Proper nouns. Sometimes, spellcheckers may assume that when you used a proper noun to identify a person, place, or thing, you really meant to use a similar-sounding word that completely changes the meaning of what you’ve written. This often happens with names that appear to be similar to other words.

Flawed fixes. Most spellcheckers give you a way to save a word that isn’t in their library so they won’t flag it in the future. Unwittingly adding a misspelled word to your spellchecker means you’ll keep using it incorrectly.

Like most types of tools, spellcheckers can be remarkably handy when they are used correctly. But it isn’t wise to trust them as the final proofreader of your work. It’s always worth the extra time to read your work carefully in case the spellchecker has skipped a potentially embarrassing misspelling or replaced the word you intended to use with something that looks or sounds similar but had a markedly different meaning.

After all, anyone who encounters the mistake isn’t going to assume the spellchecker used a word they couldn’t spell. They’ll assume the mistake is yours, chipping away at your reputation.