How Do You Do?
How well do you know your spellchecker? I’m not talking about the spouse or best friend you ask to double-check your writing. I mean the checker in your word processing software. Did you recently go on your first date? Or are you old friends? Have you seen your spellchecker naked?
No, that wasn’t a typo. Most writers trust that spelling and grammar checkers will find all their mistakes. However, if you rely solely on your digital checker and don’t do a manual check, your writing will likely go out infected with STDs—stupid typos and dammits.
Today’s post will lay bare digital spelling and grammar checkers. You’ll learn how they work and their claims to fame—and shame. Next time I’ll show you how to tweak Microsoft Word’s checker to make it more responsive to your needs.
Word processing software does just what its name implies—it processes. Its spelling checker scans text and checks words against those in its internal dictionary. It grammar checker takes into account morphology—plurals, possessives, contractions, and parts of speech—and then uses complex algorithms to determine whether words have been combined into acceptable sentence structures with appropriate punctuation. Microsoft Word underlines each possible spelling error with a red squiggly line and grammatical errors with green ones.
Meaning does not usually come into play, as checkers can’t recognize what you are trying to say. However, Microsoft Office 2007 and later versions for PC (not Mac) are equipped with a context-sensitive spellchecker you can enable (more on this later).
First, let’s look at some available spelling and grammar checkers, both standalones and those contained within word processing software.
- Microsoft Office—spelling and grammar checkers in the most well-known and widely available productivity software: Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, Excel, Visio, Access, OneNote, and Publisher.
- iWork—spelling and grammar checkers in Apple’s equivalent to Microsoft Office: Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and Mail.
- Apache Open Office—spelling and grammar checkers in a free office suite compatible with Microsoft Office that works on Windows, Solaris, Linux and Macintosh computers: Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, and Base.
- Google Docs—spelling and grammar checkers in a free online office suite: Docs, Sheets, and Slides. You must be online, in Google Docs, to use it.
- Ginger—a standalone writing and spelling-/grammar-checking app (monthly fee) for your iOS device or extension to Safari or Chrome.
- Ghotit—a free online spelling/grammar/punctuation check (type or cut and paste your text into a window and it instantly marks possible errors). Ghotit makes reading and writing software (fee) for people with dyslexia and dysgraphia.
I’ve listed the most well-known, ubiquitous, free, and/or best available office suite/word processing/spellcheck apps. Other free and paid apps are available on the Internet.
What do spelling and grammar checkers get right? First, understand that each has its own quirks. Just because one catches most noun-verb agreement errors does not mean the next will. I cannot possibly speak to the specifics of each checker in one article. Since I have decades of experience with Microsoft Word for Mac, I’ll use that checker, set to its factory default, as my sample for illustration purposes.
Word does catch nearly all misspelled words; I can’t think of any of mine, other than extremely technical or scientific terms, that it ever missed. It even lets you add your own words. My friend Melissa Escaro wrote a book about changing your mindset to make positive changes. To keep Word from flagging its title repeatedly, Melissa can add In10tions to her custom dictionary.
Word suggests possible corrections for your misspellings. Sometimes these are hilarious: if you mistakenly type “catorgies” for “categories,” Word suggests “cat orgies” as a replacement.
Capitalization, Possessives, Repeated Words
Well-known proper nouns are capitalized automatically. Word corrected “atlanta” practically before I finished typing. Most singular possessives are flagged, as in “Javiers dad eats okra for breakfast.” Repeated words are are marked.
Word catches basic subject-verb agreement issues, but not more advanced ones. It flagged “Anne and Mary is going to the game,” but not “The use of phones and pagers are prohibited.”
Word notices if you mistakenly type a punctuation mark twice, like ;;
Word is pretty reliable at flagging noun-based sentence fragments such as “Moira and her octopus.” However, once you add a verb (“Moira and her octopus swimming”), Word treats it as a complete sentence, ignoring it, even if it’s still a fragment.
Similarly, Word is inconsistent in finding run-ons, usually flagging those with several clauses strung together, but waving through rambling, stream-of-consciousness sentences.
Next, let’s examine Word’s spelling and grammar checker fails. Unfortunately, these are legion. Fortunately, thanks to my series on revision (Step 1: Revise, Step 2: Edit, Step 3: Proofread), you now know how to proofread your own work and to ask a friend to go over it, as well. If you are writing for publication, do the “when in Rome” thing and act like a professional writer: hire a professional editor and proofreader.
English is replete with homophones—words that sound alike but are spelled differently, such as to/too/two, blew/blue, be/bee, and red/read. When I type “Bertha blue bubbles in the bath,” Word does not flag blue as incorrect. When I type “Sonia sauntered too South Street,” it does not flag too. Word does not distinguish among the different meanings of the words—it only looks at whether they are spelled correctly. Word 2007 for PC (not Mac) and subsequent versions do provide for context-sensitive checking, which should catch most such errors. As a Mac user, I can’t attest to its ability. To enable it, choose File—Options—Proofing—use contextual spelling (Click here for more complete directions).
Easily Confused Words
Our language also has many pairs or groups of words that are easily confused, such as customer/costumer, assure/ensure/insure, breath/breathe, and then/than. As with homophones, Word for Mac can’t tell whether you have chosen the correct word to impart the meaning you intend; it can only note if it is spelled correctly. Word for PC with context-sensitive checking enabled may be able to distinguish among these.
Word for Mac may fail you if you accidentally type a word with a spelling similar to the word you meant to type. For example, if you intend boat, but type boar, or type hart instead of hurt, Word for Mac looks the other way. Word for PC with context-sensitive checking enabled may be able to distinguish among some of these.
Have you spelled that 12th century king’s name correctly? Word knows the most famous surnames (Rembrandt, Thatcher) and has the most common baby names (Emma, Liam) in its database, but all other names get flagged.
Grammar checkers get an even poorer grade than spelling checkers. It’s not really their fault—because so many combinations of words can form clauses and so many clauses can form sentences, it is nearly impossible for grammar checkers to definitively rule on anything beyond the simplest sentence or specific error.
The only good thing about this is that it forces writers to keep things simple. If Word underlines your sentence with a green squiggle, something is wrong with it. Period. You don’t necessarily need to know what is wrong. Just go in and simplify—and simplify—and simplify—until Word is satisfied.
Some of you are gritting your teeth and cussing me right now, but think about it. This advice is coming from the queen of long sentences! It has taken years for the Kool-Aid to take effect, but I worship at the altar of simplicity. The best writing is clear and concise.
Are your sentences so complex that Word can’t get through them? Split those long trains in half. Cut a comma or two and the clauses that go with them. Your finger won’t break as you hit delete. Your readers will thank you.
Word claims it will catch passive sentences, but it never flinched when it met the passive voice in this post. “Well-known proper nouns are capitalized automatically” got no green squiggles.
Word will, pretty much: accept any punctuation—you put; in as, correct,, as long as you don’t double it—up. My two-year-old granddaughter is a better punctuation checker.
Hyphens, Compound Words
Although Word catches some incorrect hyphenation and compound words, I find it inconsistent. When I type “I am spending my honey moon at an all inclusive resort,” Word flags neither all-inclusive nor honeymoon.
Plurals, Plural Possessives
Despite its promises to catch errors in plurals, Word misses the mark on many, like in this sentence: “Chao litigated two case in court last week.” It missed the lesson on plural possessives, leaving unscathed sentences such as “The boys jackets were covered with mud.”
Set to its factory default, here are other possible writing errors to which love Word is blind:
- Gender-specific words
- Long sentences
- Sentences beginning with And, But, Hopefully
- Successive nouns
- Successive prepositional phrases
- Unclear phrasing
- First person
- Split infinitives
- Inconsistencies in using Oxford (serial) comma
- Comma inside or outside quotation marks
- Number of spaces after a sentence
You can tweak Word’s spelling and grammar preferences to ask it to look for these errors. I’ll show you how to do this next time. (Whether Word will do as you ask is another story!)
Enjoy this video of Taylor Mali performing his hilarious and slightly ribald poem, “The The Impotence of Proofreading.”
Please share your experiences with spelling and grammar checkers below.