Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why Spell Check is Not Your Friend

English: Scanning electron microscope image of...Image via Wikipedia

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matterit's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.– Mark Twain

Ah, computers!  What wonderful tools for writers.  You type in your words and, if you make a mistake, your spell check corrects it for you.

But not so fast.  Spell checks are great for speed and efficiency, but they can also make us lazy.  Worse, they make writers ignorant of the skills we need to become better writers.  If you rely too much on a spell check, you can use the "almost right word" and not even know it.

Take these examples from recent student papers in my college composition course:               
If you are one of the few people who has savior acne problems . . .
Everyone may need some correction to becoming better at his or her weak arrears. 
Another stereotype that needs addressing is alcohol. Yes. There are tones of it. 
He believes rabbis will be the cause of the walking dead.
To be fair, the last one came from an in-class, handwritten exercise, not a computer-processed, spell-checked essay.  Even so, it reminds us why we should know the difference between the right word and the "almost right word."

I’m pretty sure the student meant “rabies” instead of rabbis.  As for the others, a close reading of the text makes it clear what word each student meant to use (severe for savior, areas for arrears, and tons for tones).
What went wrong?   Each student probably typed in what seemed to be the right word, and, when no red squiggly lines popped up to underline the error, he or she moved on.  (The words, after all, are spelled correctly.)   Or perhaps the computer tried to assist the student by offering suggestions after the first few letters were typed – suggestions that happened to be wrong.

Okay, so students make mistakes.  Big deal, right?  Why not just laugh about it and move on?

Because laziness and ignorance do not end at a few poor word choices.  They can cause major problems for writers who get into the habit of being lazy.  In The Writer’s Way, authors Jack Rawlins and Stephen Metzger describe a student paper that was supposed to be about jazz legend Duke Ellington.  As one of the authors puts it, 

[the student] simply did a global ‘search and fix’ before he submitted the paper to me.  Because his computer didn’t recognize ‘Ellington,’ he ended up with a paper about ‘Duke Wellington.’  I handed it back without reading past the first paragraph.

Now, imagine you’re not a student writing a paper for a composition instructor.  Imagine you’re a writer who wants to sell your story to an agent or publisher.  How would you feel if the manuscript you’ve worked hard and long on comes back to you with a rejection note (if you’re lucky) to watch out for similar errors?  What are the odds of that agent or publisher taking seriously anything you send them in the future?

Spell checks do have advantages.  They can help us with blind spots (for example, I often have to stop and remind myself whether "referred" has one or two "r's" at the end) and teach us how to spell unfamiliar words.

But relying too much on spell checks can bring disaster.  Their is know substitute four having god spilling skills yore shelf.

Work Cited:
Rawlins, Jack, and Stephen Metzger.  The Writer’s Way.  7th ed.  Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2009.  Page 194.

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Mike Sullivan said...

Good article, Greg. I'm sure there are people that don't even know there are red(and green) squiggly lines in word processing software.

I'm loving (not) the auto-correct in FaceBook. An example of "computers" helping out too much.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

It took me awhile to get used to Facebook filling in a person's name and link after I typed in the first few letters. That's not a bad thing. I just have to make sure it picks the correct "Mike," for example.

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