I have a spellchecker – that’ll do!

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These days, we all rely on in-built functionality to put our spelling right. Isn’t that enough?

Surely, in this day and age, we don’t need people to proofread when machines can do it for us?

Well, we’ve all seen, err, interesting auto-correct fails in our text messages…

Is the spelling/grammar checking in the programmes we use good enough, or could our reliance on these tools lead to our downfall?

One day, the functionality on our devices will be so sophisticated that human proofreaders will be able to put their feet up. Advances in voice recognition and machine learning will reliably put words on the page and we won’t have to correct anything. One day, artificial intelligence may even produce (and then consume?) literature for us, but let’s not dwell on that post-apocalyptic dystopia right now.

Back in the real world, MS Word currently gives us really helpful red and blue lines to tell us when it thinks we’ve mucked up. If I repeat the word word, it’ll provide a red squiggle. If I mismatch my subject and verb it give me a blue line. It will even automatically correct me if I try to type squiggle with one ‘g’. Brilliant! Thank you.

But, it also gives me a red squiggle line under the word proofreader and I’m pretty sure that’s correct (it is, I checked with the Society for Editors and Proofreaders). The grammar checker can get confused when a noun phrase is used – should the verb form be singular or plural?

Technical language, industry-specific jargon, names, abbreviations and acronyms will add to the algorithm’s confusion. While adding some of these terms to your local dictionary can be worthwhile, many are only used a few times. Problems occur when you get so many red squiggles that you stop looking at each instance.

Spellcheckers can also miss mistakes where a wrong-but-real word is used due to sausage-finger syndrome or a lack of familiarity with the language. This can lull you into a false sense of security due to the lack of added colour. Consider:

  • A verity of gropes left a remainder for the stuff about wear to swipe the from.

MS Word appears to be perfectly happy with that, but what does it mean? It takes a person to turn it into:

  • A variety of groups left a reminder for the staff about where to swap the form.

These misused words are all taken from projects I’ve worked on (although they were not all in that one – admittedly contrived – sentence). They all sound and look reasonably similar to the word that should have been used, especially if you consider the point of view of someone with English as a second language.

Then there are the variations within English around the world. While color has a red squiggle when I have my language set to English (UK), it might be what is required for a particular project with a US audience. In the UK we talk about bank notes, but in the US they are bills. Both recognise and recognize are correct in UK English where the decision about having -ise or -ize endings is a matter of taste or house style. When I get a project with these inconsistencies (particularly when compiling work from several contributors) and my client has no stated preference, I look for majority usage – what has been used most often – to work out what needs changing to ensure consistency.

Other elements of style are also beyond the capability of automation. These include formality, level, complexity and appropriateness, and are determined by your target audience. You wouldn’t use the word ‘masticate’ when encouraging children to chew their food carefully. Similarly, when writing informally the phrase ‘figure out’ is fine, while ‘calculate’ or ‘determine’ would be more appropriate in more formal communications. Do you want to write in the active voice? Or should the passive be used throughout?

Decisions about punctuation take us into a whole new world of potential pain. It’s easy to see when a full stop is missing And, shouldn’t there be a question mark at the end of this one. But, do you love, or hate the Oxford (serial) comma? More importantly, does your audience? Do you want to use ‘single’ or “double quotes”? Should your ellipsis be spaced … or not… Are we using spaced en dashes – or em dashes closed up—? Again consistency is the key to avoiding distraction.

Tips

So, what can you do? When it comes to checking what you have written, start off with those red and blue markers, then add your own personal intelligence into the mix:

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  • Put yourself into the shoes of your reader.
  • Read through your text  s l o w l y. Some ‘obvious’ errors are really difficult to spot as our brains are so good at working out what should be there instead!
  • Keep a list of unusual terminology/names and check each occurrence.
  • Be consistent with using UK or US English, -ise or -ize endings for verbs and punctuation.
  • Any doubts at all, look the word up. That’s what professional proofreaders and editors do!

A few common problems

Small words that are easily mis-typed, repeated or transposed:

Is, it, in, on, no, if, of, for, our, out, not, now

Homophones – you know which you should use, but it’s very easy to type the wrong one when in a hurry:

Wear/where, there/their/they’re, your/you’re, our/hour, no/know, right/write, to/two/too

Homophones – ones more likely to give pause for thought:

Compliment (to say something nice)/complement (something that goes with something else)

Loathe (to hate)/loath or loth (to be reluctant)

Practice (a noun)/practise (a verb) [but US English uses practice for both]

Other similar words easily mis-typed:

From/form

Through/though/thought

Affect (a noun)/effect (a verb)

Informal/formal usage:

Grab/take

Figure out/determine

Come up with/develop

Reckon/believe

Decisions to stick with:

-ise or -ize endings

Is dataset one word, or two (data set)?

These are just a few examples, and I’m sure you have lots of your own. I’d love to hear them!

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