Spell Checkers, Grammar Checkers, and You: The Uneasy Alliance

Right now, somewhere in America, there’s a cranky old guy standing on his porch angrily ranting about the march of progress, the rising tide of technology, and how so many things were better in his day.

That old guy isn’t me. At least, I hope it’s not me. I’ve always managed to deal with new technology pretty well. Okay, full A Hand With a Grammar Theme Holding the Red Word Spellcheckdisclaimer: I don’t understand the fascination with cell phones. But other technology? I’m good.

Back to the main point: tech is useful. Tech is interesting. I’m more than happy to let it make my life easier. I do believe, though, that we’re inching toward trouble when we stop relying on our own judgment and begin passively accepting whatever our software tells us.

Which brings me to the topic of spell checking and grammar correction programs.

Tools for the Grammatically Challenged

It’s not just embarrassing when something you post on your business website turns out to have a serious grammar or spelling error. Writing mistakes can reduce your credibility with prospective clients or customers. It’s in your own best interest that any mistakes you make are caught and fixed before your blog, news item, or in-depth essay is published.

I’m happy to admit that modern proofreading programs can be great help when you’re writing web content. The software can work silently in the background and warn you about…

And many, many other failures of effective writing.

Or Is it “Garbage in, Garbage Out”?

The case against relying too heavily on spelling and grammar software can be stated in three simple arguments:

  • People are imperfect. People make mistakes all the time. Because people are imperfect, they won’t always catch their mistakes early on.
  • Software is a human product, and therefore it embeds the human potential for error. Repeated testing can eliminate some of the bugs, but you can never be sure that all the errors in the program have been identified.
  • Relying on software for ANYTHING means that you are choosing to substitute the programmers’ set of mistakes for your own.

Does this mean that you should abandon using a spell checker and grammar checker on your finished work? Not at all! But you should be alert to the fact that these programs are subject to specific patterns of errors themselves:

  • False negatives are pretty common for spell checking programs. Most spell checkers aren’t very sensitive to context, so they will let mistakes pass through without alerting the user. If you type adorn when you meant adore, the program will recognize the word as a verb and correctly spelled, and will not flag this as a mistake. Most spell checkers will say okay to isolated single letters, so when you type “t” when you meant “to,” that will get a pass. And woe unto you if you have accidentally corrupted your user dictionary! Example: I have a tendency to misspell “wield” as “weild.” Once, when my spell checker caught the typo, I accidentally hit the “No, it’s okay” button. Now my word processing program thinks “weild” is a legitimate spelling, so I will NEVER again be warned about that particular spelling error.
  • False positives are pervasive problems for grammar check programs. Grammar checkers are programmed to treat one type of sentence as ideal: a fairly short declarative sentence in the active voice with few modifiers. That’s great for Hemingway, but not so great for the rest of us. Any variation will be brought to your attention as a potential mistake. Some grammar checkers enforce “rules” about English usage—such as starting a sentence with a conjunction or splitting infinitives—that are no longer considered errors. If you deliberately use a sentence fragment, or if you write a sentence that runs to a 30 words or longer, or if your vocabulary rises above the tenth grade reading level, or if you dare to use the passive voice…you will presented with a snippy reminder that such writing isn’t considered best practices. And that’s absurd. A varied and engaging style is the best practice—or, at least, better than a monotonous procession of uniform sentences that assail the reader relentlessly.

The case against spelling and grammar programs can also be stated with one simple observation. Here’s an actual quotation from a company that sells a proofreading software package:

“The best advantage with our services is that this can provide you 24/7 help perfect for those who require immediate proofreading. You can easily access our spell and grammer checker and benefit from the effectiveness of these proofreading tools at the most affordable pricing!”

My point: the word “grammar” is misspelled. Oops.

The Poor Craftsman Blames His Tools

Spell checking and grammar correction programs are tools. Now, any carpenter will tell you there’s no such thing as one perfect tool. When you get a new hammer, you don’t use that as a reason to throw out all your old hammers—and definitely not your screwdrivers and saws, too.

It’s just the same with proofreading software. Programs are but one means to defend against mistakes. Your first line of defense should be your own re-reading of your work, of course. However, as we have said many times, your familiarity with what you intended to write means that you often will overlook any typos, mentally substituting the correct word.

The best answer is to rely on three lines of defense: software, your own judgment, and the help of another person to edit or proofread your work before you post it. A trusted proofreader is invaluable (and, frankly, indispensable). Will some errors still get through the editing process? Sure—but they will be very few.

What other resources do you use to catch errors in your website content? How did you find the perfect proofreader for your work? All of our readers are invited to share their stories by using the comment function on this page. Your experience will become incredibly rich advice for other business managers just learning how to fill up their own websites.


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