We editors love to criticize spell-check. We know too well how this tool designed to save you from embarrassing errors can let you down. If you type “Please remain clam,” which as I reported in this space a few months ago one unfortunate writer did, spell-check won’t know that you wanted to type “calm.”
If you write something about chickens attempting to escape their coup, your software will let you, utterly failing in its responsibility to tell you that you meant “coop.” If you’re talking about a street vendor pedaling his wares, spell-check won’t realize you meant “peddling.”
The list of mistakes that spell-check fails to catch is almost endless.
But that’s not the only reason editors are critical of computer spelling- and grammar-checker software.
The other is a little harder to admit: We feel threatened. Anyone who’s heard of artificial intelligence can guess that it’s just a matter of time before we human editors and proofreaders are put out of work by machines that do our jobs better and cheaper.
But in our more candid moments, many of us will admit that spell-checker isn’t so much an enemy as a frenemy.
Yes, we love to hate it. But we could hardly do our jobs without it. The ugly truth is that it’s already better than humans at a number of tasks. Here are some of the ways in which, I must admit, spell-check can save you.
The “ignore all” function. If you don’t use this button, take heed: spell-check’s “ignore all” function can save your hide. This is especially true when dealing with proper names.
Imagine, for example, you’ve just finished writing a long document about someone named Casagrande. You run spell-check. It doesn’t know this name, so it flags it, asking you to either change the spelling or “ignore” it, leaving it as is.
You hit “ignore.” A page later, spell-check flags “Casagrande” again. You hit “ignore” again. A few more times and you’re on autopilot, reflexively hitting the “ignore” button every time. And that’s how you overlook the misspelling “Cassagrande.”
But if you had hit “ignore all” the first time, spell-check would have assumed that every “Casagrande” is correct. It would not ask you to approve this word again. So if it suddenly flagged a word that looked like “Casagrande” you would know to take a closer look. Something must be off because if it had been spelled correctly, your computer wouldn’t have flagged it.
Basic spelling. More recently than I care to admit, I decided to learn how to spell “embarrass.” The double Rs had always eluded me, and for years I’d resigned myself to the idea that “I just don’t know how” to spell it.
Hot tip: You can change your mind about such things. It just takes a moment to say, “I’m going to hunker down right now and commit to remembering this.”
It worked for me. But in the dark years before I figured this out, spell-checker had my back. I doubt I ever misspelled “embarrass” in a typed document because spell-checker really is good at some things. This is one of them.
Basic grammar. Sometimes, when we’re focused on something we want to say or some point we’re struggling to make, we can forget basics of English grammar like subject-verb agreement, when to choose subject pronouns and when to choose object pronouns, that possessive “its” takes no apostrophe and lots of other little matters.