Trust Spell Check At Your Peril…

SpellcheckRemember the days before Spell Check? Back then, turning out writing without spelling or grammar errors meant dedicated proofreading. Then Spell Check came along and saved all of us from our inability to look a word up in the dictionary and our lack of grammar knowledge. Or did it?

Writing today – whether it be an email, a cover letter or a blog posting – still requires proofreading, because Spell Check doesn’t catch every mistake. Spell Check was developed and programmed by people; ideally, these would be English professors and grammar-correcting grandmothers, but most likely they are math and statistics whizzes who know more about algorithms and programming languages than the English language. People make mistakes. And the English language is complex. For both of these reasons, it is risky to rely on Spell Check to help you turn out perfect, error-free writing. Trust Spell Check? At your own peril!

Where does Spell Check fail? What should you look for when proofreading your writing to catch the mistakes Spell Check doesn’t find?

Homonyms – words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. For example: there/their, here/hear, meat/meet, know/no.

It is very easy for Spell Check to miss the meaning of a homonym in a sentence and allow “the other one” to pass through its filters. A great way to double-check that you are using the correct word is to keep a list of homonyms handy and refer to it when you are proofreading your work. Use CTRL-F (Find) in most programs to search text for the homonyms you use the most and to verify you are using the correct word.

Sentence subjects that include a prepositional phrase. Subject/verb agreement is the first rule of sentence construction. A singular subject (I/he/she) requires a singular verb (I run/he runs/she runs). However, when a prepositional phrase is added as a modifier of the sentence subject, Spell Check easily gets confused as to which word to use to determine the proper verb number.

For example: “His theory about the continents is accurate.” (subject = theory, which is singular; “continents” is the object of the preposition “of”)

The best way to verify subject/verb agreement in a sentence that contains a prepositional phrase is to read the sentence without the prepositional phrase (“His theory { } is accurate”). If the subject and verb agree when the propositional phrase is excluded, then the sentence structure is correct regardless of what Spell Check says!

Unusual subjects, such as proper nouns or titles. Complex proper nouns or multi-word titles might sound plural to Spell Check, when in fact they should be treated as singular. For example: “Beasts of the Southern Wild is a great movie.”

In this example, it might look like “Beasts” is the subject of the sentence and that the verb should be plural. However, the subject is actually the full name of the movie (1 movie, so singular). This can be easier to identify when the title is underlined or italicized per MLA or Associated Press writing style guidelines. In the absence of punctuation, a good way to verify subject/verb agreement here is to reverse the sentence to see if it still makes sense: “A great movie is Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

I love technology like Spell Check when it makes my life easier and helps me produce better quality writing. But I still proofread, because relying solely on technology can sometimes make me and my writing look stoopid.

Heather Nelson is a partner with PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. Heather and the team have advised major clients including PepsiCo, McKesson, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hitachi Consulting and many others on how to realize results through people. Contact her at hnelson@people-results.com.

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