Why You Should NEVER Trust Your Spell-Checker

It’s all Maria Mariana’s fault. She was one in a group of six linguists from Georgetown University who, back in the 70s, first developed an automated way to check spelling and grammar on word processing programs for IBM. Perhaps, though, she meant well. Thought it would be a good thing to create this seductive monster that can batch-attack the often time-consuming and ponderous human task of checking one’s work for errors.

Backfire, Maria. Semi-total epic FAIL! Spell-check has made us lazy. It has lulled us into a false sense of security with its offers to change your grammar or correct that questionable word. We all have stories of spell-checking failure, some with embarrassing and humorous results. Here are a few more reasons you should never trust that pathetic plug-in with your important work.

1. Spell-checkers are notoriously obtuse. Consider the following passage:

My physical therapist worked out a weight-bearing routine for me that stimulates my osteoblasts, which are the cells that build new bone.

The spelling and grammar checker in my version of Microsoft Word wants to replace “stimulate” for “stimulates.” It believes that the subject that is being stimulated is plural…actually, I have no plucking idea what it believes. It’s just wrong.

2. Spell-checkers can’t parse your intentions. Like this one:

“Pete’s working again.”

Spell-check suggestions for this alleged error in “subject-verb agreement” include “Pete’s is working” or “Pete’s was working.” The writer’s intention was to state that Pete is once again gainfully employed. But good old SC doesn’t know this, and assumes that something of Pete’s is now or formerly was functional.

3. Spell-checkers can’t find missing words. “Ted raced the sink” has a rather different meaning than “Ted raced to the sink.” In a long document, particularly one you’ve been poring over draft after draft, your brain will supply the missing word. So, you may miss it in the proofreading and lead your readers to believe Ted has been imbibing and sincerely believes he and the sink are in competition.

4. Spell-checkers can auto-correct you into situations in which you do not want to be auto-corrected. A former colleague, who normally relied upon his assistant to correct and send out his correspondence, decided to give her a break and take care of some of his own. In an e-mail that went out to the entire sales staff, he intended to ask for their opinions on a new sales program. He ended with, “I look forward to seeing your evaluation.” Only, because of his less-than-stellar keyboarding skills, his spell-check program decided he meant to type “ejaculation.” Yeah. It went out that way.

5. Spell-checkers won’t tell you if your formatting is inconsistent. This is one reason why you should never abandon something as format-dependent as your resume solely to the eye-chips of your computer program. It won’t tell you that you’ve ended some bullet-text items with periods and left them off others. It won’t tell you a heading is in the wrong font or tabbed in too far. These sorts of things are CRUCIAL to swing by your own eyeballs, especially if the job you desire has anything to do with attention to detail.

6. Spell-checkers don’t measure up to humans…at least not yet. Flawed as we are, we’re still better than machines at certain tasks, like knowing what we meant to say. Don’t have time to proofread or can’t tell if your participles are dangling? Hire a human.

Have any good spell-checking horror stories?

Have You Hugged Your Proofreader Today?

Every glamorous profession requires its share of trench workers. For every Kate Moss wannabe strutting down the catwalk during Fashion Week, there are dozens of people toiling away behind the curtain to make sure she doesn’t fall on her pretty face. For every Lady Gaga kicking butt and wearing meat on tour, there are legions of roadies, carpenters, lighting designers, costumers, drivers, and caterers making sure everything goes right and everything ends up in the right venue.

In publishing-although some segments are more glamorous than others-one of the most unsung heroes is the proofreader. Writers write their dreams, literary agents and editors help turn them into novels, but if the proofreader slacks at his or her job, a book becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to read.

But maybe you think proofreading is an easy gig. You’ll get to read all day, right? While proofreaders do get to read their projects (one hopes, anyway), it’s not really reading. It’s scanning; it’s analyzing. It’s akin to taking a Renoir and teasing it apart into brushstrokes, color, and light. Still, for every masterpiece, you’ll get an apprentice’s first project. For every New York Times bestseller, you’ll get a dozen textbooks, legal briefs, or reference manuals. You might get projects so dull, you’ll be fighting sleep in your chair. Which, if you work from home, may not be so terrible, but in an office, is not your supervisor’s preferred way for you to spend your time.

Proofreading is hard, physical work. Imagine spending your entire day, day after day, combing through manuscripts line by line, word by word, hunting for misspellings and missing words, when our human eye is trained to take in chunks of words and therefore skip over missing words and misspellings! Even if your posture and ergonomic set up are perfect, our spines were not designed to be sat upon for hours, our bodies were not meant to be still for such long stretches, and our eyes – especially the eyes of someone over forty – do not like maintaining a constant focus. Many proofreaders develop chronic neck, shoulder, and upper back problems. Now that many proofreaders have abandoned hard copies and red pens for the seeming ease of the computer, the strain just moves to other parts of their bodies. Eyes, in particular, don’t like hours of staring at monitors that reflect light, which was a problem e-reader manufacturers had to contend with in their earliest stages. Scientific eye studies show that we blink less when we look at a monitor, so those who proofread at the computer can end up with dry, stinging eyes.

So next time you dive into a book that reads like smooth, single-malt Scotch, thank the author, the editor, the agent, and the publisher, but don’t forget to thank the proofreader. Preferably with a shoulder massage and a bottle of eye drops.

Who are the unsung heroes in your profession?

(PS: One of my goals for 2011 is to blog more. Rather than just fretting about it or making endless attempts at first paragraphs that go nowhere, I’m starting right now. I will be posting on this blog as daily as possible for all of this coming year.

I know it won’t be easy, and some posts might plain suck, but it might be fun, inspiring, awesome and wonderful. Therefore I’m promising to make use of The DailyPost, and the community of other bloggers with similiar goals, to help me along the way, including (gasp) asking for help when I need it and encouraging others when I can.

If you already read my blog, I hope you’ll encourage me with comments and likes, and good will along the way.)