The Challenge of Spell Checkers

Spell Checkers - Spilt coffee by stevepb CC0 Public Domain from Pixabay
Red squiggly line by Peter Giblett

We have come accus­tomed to it when we write, the red squig­gly line the spell check­ers spit out to say you had one of those men­tal moments. You spelt it wrong. It is just like the teacher back in school days get­ting her red pen­cil out to high­light your errors.

English or American?

There we have it, prob­lem num­ber one. Most spell check­ing soft­ware con­sid­er the past tense of spell as spelled, not spelt. There is a sim­ple rea­son for this, they are Amer­i­can ver­sions of the dic­tio­nary. Even the “British” ver­sions of the dic­tio­nar­ies used in soft­ware sys­tems are writ­ten by Amer­i­can pro­gram­mers with lit­tle under­stand­ing of region­al dif­fer­ences in the lan­guage. In Britain many region­al dialects use spelt, but to Amer­i­cans this is a type of wheat, grown in Europe. An Amer­i­can uses the word spelled.
As an Eng­lish­man liv­ing in Cana­da, dur­ing my life­time I have worked with peo­ple from almost every land that speaks the Eng­lish lan­guage. Gen­er­al­ly, I con­tin­ue to write with my home ver­sion of this lan­guage and not adopt­ing a Cana­di­an (or even Amer­i­can) vari­ant. This means choos­ing to use words like colour, with the “U” includ­ed in them, and use “realise” and not “real­ize”. I am often the first to notice when the spelling check­er is wrong and usu­al­ly reach for my dic­tio­nary (and always have 3 with­in arms reach) to con­firm this fact.
This was how I dis­cov­ered many prob­lems spelling check­ers have. Not men­tion­ing that more than a mil­lion words exist in the Eng­lish lan­guage today. New words are added dai­ly. Coders could nev­er keep up.
I am not pick­ing on Amer­i­ca here as the “bad guy” They are not. I am sim­ply point­ing out that spelling dif­fer­ences criss­cross the lan­guage. Have you tak­en a look at the Aus­tralian dic­tio­nary? Dif­fer­ent again.


Spell Checkers Stop by Kurious CC0 Public Domain from PixabayAnoth­er writer, Mar­i­lyn Davies, has writ­ten about prob­lems with spelling check soft­ware also so I am not alone in talk­ing about this. Many writ­ers turn off spell check­ing for all appli­ca­tions. They are both­ered by the sil­ly prob­lems that keep recur­ring. I do not, because they are use­ful in high­light­ing when I have made a typo. I know my typ­ing skills are excel­lent, but I do slip, occa­sion­al­ly. Addi­tion­al­ly I do use gram­mar check­ing soft­ware, once com­plet­ing edits.

Yet one fur­ther lim­i­ta­tion of spell check­ing is when you mis­spell some­thing, yet the error is actu­al­ly still a cor­rect­ly spelt word. Like using “net” when you intend­ed to use “not”. the prob­lem with this type of error is that they are almost impos­si­ble to spot because your mind will almost always trick you into think­ing you used the cor­rect word. Only con­text check­ing will pick this up.
Believe it or not this is where tem­po­rary blind­ness has assist­ed me because those dark days caused me to install soft­ware that reads text to me and today it is rare for me not to post with­out hav­ing the item read back to me as a part of my qual­i­ty con­trol rou­tine, which most often finds these errors.

Spell Check

Some prob­lems with spell check­ers include:
  • Not good with place names, has some knowl­edge of Amer­i­can places, but oth­ers are often problematic.
  • Works poor­ly with prop­er names.
  • Many tech­ni­cal terms need adding to a cus­tom dictionary.
  • Does not find mis­used, but cor­rect­ly spelt, words.
  • Does not detect the improp­er use of homonyms.
  • Flags words as an error yet they are cor­rect (the replace­ment pro­vides an iden­ti­cal spelling).
  • It doesn’t offer use­ful suggestions

Nine times out of ten when I am unsure of the spelling I will either Google the attempt­ed spelling or look it up in the dic­tio­nary. In all fair­ness when you know a word but are not sure about the order of the sec­ond or third let­ter then a dic­tio­nary search is much more com­plex, but Google can often find the word you intended.


About the Author

Peter Giblett has spent his life as a busi­ness writer cre­at­ing reports, project plans, jus­ti­fi­ca­tions etc. Peter has writ­ten on-line since 2008, has pro­duced web con­tent for many web sites. He is a writer and mod­er­a­tor for Wik­in­utGob­blede­Goox is a new source of inspi­ra­tion for those look­ing to improve their writ­ing, blog­ging, and word-craft skills.




Buy Peter B. Giblett a cof­fee as a thank you for con­tribut­ing his thoughts on the pow­er words can bring. All images used here are either owned by Peter Giblett or are CC0 Pub­lic Domain.


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2 Replies to “The Challenge of Spell Checkers”

  1. […] check­ing and gram­mar check­ing are all vital. I would say you start with the spell check­er linked to your word proces­sor or brows­er. There are var­i­ous web­sites that enable writ­ers to check […]

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