What’s Wrong with Spellcheck?
Many of us rely on the spellcheck tools integrated into our favourite word processors. The helpful tool has become so popular and widely use that it’s now being blamed for poor literacy, particularly among students.
One of the main problems with spellcheckers is in its very name – “spell”. With a focus on spelling, spellcheckers can ignore mistaken homophones, and ignore (and even create) errors in grammar and syntax.
There’s nothing worse than writing an important document (e.g. a business proposal), sending it off and then spotting an embarrassing mistake. Maybe instead of “definitely having metrics” you “defiantly have metrics”. Spellcheck is aware that defiantly is a word, as is definitely, so did not flag the issue.
New programs attempt to combat some of these problems. Grammarly, for instance, addresses grammar and syntax in addition to spelling.
Grammar-checkers are Better, Right?
Grammarly is an immensely popular plug-in that can be used alongside other applications (yes, even Word!). This compatibility is one reason for Grammarly’s success.
To give you an insight into just how popular Grammarly is, I’ll tell you this:
As of 2017, Grammarly has 6.9 million daily users.
Yes, you read that right. 6.9 million!
I won’t lie to you; Grammarly is a great tool. It also makes mistakes.
Recently, I wrote a book review. Grammarly flagged “self-centred” as incorrect, and instead suggested that I use “self-centered”.
A simple disagreement but an important one.
For my website I follow the Oxford Style Guide, which favours British spelling. Using the American spelling”self-center” resulted in an avoidable inconsistency.
What was even more interesting was what happened when I did follow Grammarly’s advice.
When I accepted Grammarly’s suggestion to change the word, the extension flagged it again. This time suggesting that it should be “self-centred”.
It seems as though grammar checkers can be just as unsure as the rest of us!
Rules Are Made to be Broken
Another interesting problem with spelling and grammar checkers is their inability to stray from pre-programmed rules.
There are some cases where it is better for a text to ignore certain rules. A good example of this is passive voice. Passive voice refers to a subject being acted upon, rather than the subject doing the acting. Passive voice is an issue that checkers like Grammarly often flag as errors. This is because people often view active voice as stronger and more clear than passive voice, which can be seen as weak and unsure. The majority of the time active voice is preferable, but there are many instances where passive should be considered.
When writing news headlines, passive voice can provide more impact and focus. For instance, “Mother of two attacked by man” places importance on the victim, while the active form, “Man attacks mother of two” places focus on the perpetrator. This is particularly relevant when the person doing the acting is unidentified.
Another example is a matter of style.
Faster-pacing often relies on fragmented sentences, it conveys an extra punch and sense of urgency. Long sentences, on the other hand, tend to flow, are more rhythmic, and often considered to be more literary. If you’re a long-sentence-writer and clicked that link, you’ll see that you’re in very good company. Esteemed writers like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner were all fond of long prose.
Many grammar tools may flag these types stylistic choices as wrong (they have the potential to be problematic, but aren’t necessarily wrong). A real human editor, however, is able to consider the context of the passage within the larger piece, and the author’s writing style and desired tone.
What’s the Alternative?
Don’t let this post scare you. Spellcheckers and grammar checkers can be useful tools, but be wary of relying on them.
If you think that you have a dependence on spellcheck and grammar-check tools, try going without them for a few days!
Alternatively, check your work with multiple tools. Many tools will throw unnecessary errors, while some will miss them altogether. By conferring with different tools you can make a more informed decision on what is good spelling or grammar and what isn’t.
Even better than trying new, or extra tools, is enlisting the help of another person. An extra set of eyes are often able to spot errors the original writer or editor may have missed.
Friends or family may be willing to proofread your text and offer valuable corrections. For even more comprehensive suggestions consider speaking to a professionally trained editor. Your work will thank you!
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