A Word, Please: The upsides and drawbacks of spell-checker

I got an email recently from a reader whose spell-checker flagged the word “uninvolved” as an error.

I’m not sure what software she was using. My Microsoft Word doesn’t have a problem with “uninvolved.” But her spell-checker didn’t like it one bit.

Spell-check programs vary greatly. But there are two observations we can make about spell-checkers that are, in fact, universal: 1. You can’t live with ’em. 2. You can’t live without ’em.

There’s no question that spell-checkers can save your hide. Words like embarrass, supersede, naive, liaison and many others are easy for a human to misspell. But a computer can catch them every time.

Then there are repeated words like “the the,” “on on,” “at at” and so on. As anyone who’s ever failed the “Paris in the the spring” test can attest, the human eye tends to gloss over such hiccups. But my computer never fails to point these out.

So in some ways, a spell-checker is smarter than its user. But in other ways, a spell-checker is just dumb.

For one thing, no spell-checker program I’ve ever seen can understand prefixes and suffixes. These little bits let you to make up your own words that, though not in any dictionary, are 100% correct, even though spell-checker doesn’t realize it.

Uninvolved, unagitated, precoughed, codesigner, antiworker, bicycleborne — the red lines I’m seeing under these words as I type make clear that spell-checker disapproves. But spell-checker is wrong. Prefixes and suffixes, which usually work without hyphens, can create new terms that, though not in a dictionary or database, are legitimate.

Another problem with spell-checker is that it creates a false sense of security. Say, for example, you’re writing a document that mentions the name Mahar multiple times. When you run spell-checker, the program pauses at the first instance of the word. So you click “ignore” because you know the word is right. Now, assuming you didn’t click “ignore all,” spell-checker will flag this word every time. So you’ll just keep automatically clicking “ignore,” failing to notice that in one place you misspelled it Maher.

But even if you do click “ignore all,” chances are that you’ll let a Maher slip in. That’s because when we use “ignore all” it’s often in long documents with lots of names, so we lose track of which ones we’ve already blessed with the “ignore all” button.

We end up clicking “ignore all” for both Mahar and Maher. That’s why, in longer documents, the only way to ensure unusual names are spelled correctly is to click “ignore all” plus pay careful attention every name spell-checker questions.

Another weakness of spell-checker: It will let you write as two words things you should have written as one word. You can write about a well spring, flag ship, big foot, king pin and hall mark, and spell-checker won’t know that you really wanted wellspring, flagship, bigfoot, kingpin and hallmark. To its credit, though, my Microsoft Word does know that “my long time companion” should be “my longtime companion.”

But the biggest weakness of spell-checker is that its ignorance of homophones — words that are pronounced the same even though they’re spelled differently, which humans screw up a lot. Computer spell-checkers are notoriously ill-equipped to catch these errors.

Take the sentence, “In the 1960s, the Beatles lead the nation and the world to new places.” See the typo? Neither does my spell-checker. “Lead” should “led.”

“My boss complemented my performance.” Spell-checker has no idea I meant “complimented.”

Do you have the metal to pass mustard by being discrete as you pedal your wears and meat out punishment to the palettes of dinners? Spell-checker is cool with that. Unfortunately, I meant “mettle,” “muster,” “discreet,” “peddle,” “wares,” “mete,” “palates” and “diners.”

The bottom line about spell-checker is that you just can’t trust it, just as you shouldn’t trust yourself without it.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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