Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't bet it all on SpellCheck

It seems so easy. You simply press a button, and - ta da!! - those spelling woes are over. But don't do it. Please. Don't trust SpellCheck. SpellCheck is like that bad boy (or girl) your parents always warned you about - it's impossible to stay away completely, but it's better for you if you try.

SpellCheck is, of course, that online dictionary that so many of us know and love. And I have no problem using it as a backup - I use it myself. It's a great tool when you know what you're looking for. And when you're typing fast or on deadline, it's wonderful to be able to double-check yourself.

But writers need to know how to spell; it's just that simple. And if we don't, we need to have a real dictionary by our side. I know some people find grammar boring and tedious and confusing, but it's all part of the game. We can't expect someone else to catch our errors - especially not overworked editors. That's just playing with fire. These words that we work so hard to find and develop and massage - they have our names above them. We want to be proud of them.

SpellCheck doesn't understand homonyms like their and there, or two, to and too. SpellCheck won't save us from the embarrassment of using it's and its incorrectly.

And sometimes (gasp!) SpellCheck works against us. SpellCheck offers suggestions, ones that can make "Obama" Osama, or change a "public" servant to someone far more risque. SpellCheck relies on us. We can't rely on SpellCheck. One wrong click, and ...

True horror story: At a tiny paper where I used to work, a reporter was chatting to her friend while she used SpellCheck on her story about a local bank robbery trial. This was awhile ago, so I'm sure the version she was using was extremely primitive. Regardless, her helpful SpellCheck suggested she change "testimony" to "testicle" throughout the copy. Engrossed in her phone conversation, she made the fateful wrong click. A very confused copy editor caught the errors and sent it back to her. The reporter was horrified and very angry - until she figured out what had happened, she assumed she was the victim of a mean-spirited prank.

And I'm betting she never offered SpellCheck the same level of trust again.

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