Saturday, March 17, 2007


Spelling checkers

I've mentioned before that I prefer the term “spelling checker” for software that checks spelling; a “spell checker” would be something that checks spells, more useful to sorcerers and shamans than to those seeking sterling orthography.

But I find overreliance on spelling checkers, regardless of what one calls them, to be disturbing. It might surprise you to know, as you read these missives and find few spelling errors, that I never check them for correct spelling with software. I check them the old way: by proofreading them.

Ah, you say, how quaint, how... how 20th-century. But, see, when I do that, I find and fix the few spelling errors that are there before you see them. And I also fix the occasional grammatical error. And the odd & end wrong word, something that would pass the spelling checker just fine, but that I'm glad to catch.

Perhaps most important of all, by re-reading it with a critical eye, I find things that I decide I'd like to say a little differently, clarify something that's not quite worded right, soften something that now seems to be a bit stronger than I'd meant it.

In other words, I think my blog entries are better for it.

It also seems to me that as writers of all sorts have increased their use of these tools, there's much less proofreading going on, and much of the writing I see — in newspapers, in magazines, on the web, in email, in technical papers — is worse for that. Proofreading accomplishes more than making sure things are spelled correctly, but the ability to check spelling automatically has made some writers ignore the other benefits of proofreading in an attempt to save effort and money. I wonder, sometimes, whether newspapers even employ copy editors any more.

Back in 1988, an IBM colleague posted a comment to a discussion in which someone else had been criticized for not having used PROOF, a spelling checker we then had available, to avoid misspellings in his comments. Here's what he had to say:

Just to be safe, I PROOFed this one before appending (with apologies to L. Carroll).

Teas broiling and the silty tomes
Did gyrate and gamble in the wave
All misery were the boroughs
And the mime rashes outraged

Beware my son the Jabberer
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch
Beware the Jujitsu bird
And shun the furious Bantering

He took his voracity sword in hand
Long time the maximal foe he sought
So rested he by the Tom*Tom tree
And stood awhile in thought

And as in Irish thought he stood
The Jabberer with eyes of flame
Came waffling through the Tulsa wood
And burbled as it came

One! Two! One! Two!
The voracity blade went snicker snack
He left it dead, and with its head
He went glamoring back

“Hats thou slain the Jabberer?
Come to my arms my bleakish boy!
Oh farmhouse day, calculi, canary!”
He chortled in his joy.

Teas broiling and the silty tomes
Did gyrate and gamble in the wave
All misery were the boroughs
And the mime rashes outraged

I obviously take no responsibility for spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc., etc.

---- David S.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Spelling checkers are half useful - they catch typos (sometimes - I have a tendency to type "filed" for "field" - I don't misspell it when writing, but it gets typed that way a lot and no spelling checker will catch it) but are useless for homonyms. For a truly bad speller, it's not a bad first step (emphasis on the first).

But the grammar checker is worse than useless. I don't use it, but I get a lot of papers where it was turned on (so still is) and it's stunning how many completely wrong suggestions it makes.

It has a horrible time discerning the actual structure of complex sentences, leading it to suggest incorrections such as changing “I’m very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country, and I want make sure they can.” so that it reads "... to our country, who wants to serve their country ... / ... to our countries, who want ..."

You might quarrel with the syntax of that sentence (does there need to be an "and" before the second "who"?) but the grammar checker's "suggestion" makes it incoherent.

It also has no really good idea of what a "sentence fragment" is, leading it to flag all sorts of even just slightly marked sentences as fragments.

At any rate, I find I sometimes miss typos and misspellings on the screen, which is why I always print something that's really important. For some reason, I see errors on a printed page that I don't on a screen.

Paul said...

Spelling checkers and I have an ongoing war. Being in Canada, a significant portion of the worlds I use are highlighted as being incorrectly spelled by spell checkers. Not only that, but they always seem to be about twelve years behind common usage. Can you believe the spelling checker for my AOL e-mail account doesn't even recognise the word 'blog'?

Barry Leiba said...

Half useful, yes... don't get me wrong: I think it's fine to use a spelling checker if you then also proofread (or have someone proofread). As you said, first step. And I agree that the grammar checkers are useless to you and me. If your grammar is basically good, and you don't write sentences for fourth-graders, you'll easily exceed the grammar checker's ability.

Natural language grammar is just too complex and varied for computers to cope with, in general. We break "rules" all the time, as you did in your example (more later), and it can actually be good writing when we do.

And then, of course, there's the famous pair:
Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.
...and the third that a colleague of mine once added:
Yeager flies, like, a jet.

Yes, I might quarrel with the missing "and" in your sentence, but I think it's better-written without it. Strict grammar would have it there, but the style as written feels better to me. And a grammar checker'll never understand that.

As to Paul's issue: don't most spelling checkers have a "UK English" mode? I use some UK spellings (colour, centre), which I picked up when I worked in the UK for a while (and I guess it's sort of become an affectation). For things like "blog", well, yes, just add them to the dictionary. With some spelling checkers you can remove words, too, which is useful when, as a friend of mine did, you don't ever need to type "manger", but you often mistype "manager".

A final spelling-checker story that just came to mind is of a bulletin-board notice for the sale of a "2-door Satan". I'm not sure whether it was a misspelling of "Sedan" (maybe "Sadan") or "Saturn" (maybe "Satun"), but either way I think it was "corrected" by a spelling checker and blindly accepted.

scouter573 said...

I recall an interesting study on spell(ing) checkers, but I can't find a reference. At one point, spell checkers competed on the size of the dictionary that they used. More bigger, more better, as Justin Wilson might say. The researchers examined the result of varying the size of the dictionary and discovered that a larger dictionary would initially produce better results, but after a certain size would produce worse results. It seems that the English language is so rich (or our vocabularies so poor) that common typos could actually be found as words in a sufficiently large dictionary.

By the way, is the tool a spelling checker or a speller checker?

Barry Leiba said...

Yes, exactly the manger/manager situation.

«By the way, is the tool a spelling checker or a speller checker?»

Hm. I think a speller checker would be presuming to fix the speller, and I know few people who actually learn from the corrections. Though one friend of mine learnt to spell "liaison" correctly that way, and another learnt about "minuscule". So it does happen.