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Why You Shouldn't Put You Complete Trust In The Spell Checker
by Gary Blake

If you spotted the mistake in the title of this article, then you have a graphic example of what your spell command cannot do for you. Although it's tempting to rely on the electronic wizard to bail you out of the problem (as opposed to "bale" you out, which passed my spell checker) of being a poor speller, the hard reality is that you still must check your work to find mistakes that no computer program will find or correct.

As part of my seminars in business writing and technical writing, I routinely quiz participants on several dozen most commonly misspelled words. No matter what part of the country I find myself, I always hear the same objection from someone in the class: "Why do I need to know this stuff when my computer checks it for me?" My answer is always the same: "Your computer won't find all your mistakes, so you'd better rely on yourself."

To bolster my case, here are four good reasons why you shouldn't entrust your documents solely to the computer:

1. If the word you've used isn't the right word but it is spelled correctly, the spell command will let it pass. Since I teach people how to improve their writing, my work must be error-free. So imagine how I've felt when my press releases have contained the phrases: "...a flyer than lists antiquated phrases" and" ...send a check of money order to The Communication Workshop." In one release, my address was written correctly as "130 Shore Road" at the beginning and as "130 Short Road" at the end. My spell checker obviously found them both acceptable, since they were both spelled correctly.

Actually, it was my grammar checker that once inadvertently found a bad typo (are there any good ones?) in one of my documents. I'd written "Blake suggests that you print out an read five or six e-mail messages." The grammar checker suggested I use "a" instead of "an!"

2. Incorrect homonyms are not flagged. When you type, you often forget to pay attention to those words that sound alike but have different meanings. Words like "meet" and "meat," "they're" and "their," or "to," "too," and "two." In his classic "An Owed to the Spelling Checker," Jerry Zar, Dean of the Graduate School at Northwestern Illinois University paid special tribute to the computer's inability to distinguish between homonyms. "I have a spelling checker. It came with my PC. It plane lee marks four my revue miss steaks aye can knot see," he wrote. You get the point.

3. The spell checker won't flag sentences with words left out. I once had a sentence in a press release that read: "We will share strategies for making conversational English standard of the business world." Of course, there was a "the" missing before the word "standard," but the only way I caught the gap was to read the sentence aloud. That's what you should do with all of your written work.

4. The spell checker doesn't necessarily give the correct advice about hyphenated words. My spell checker allowed both data-base and `database, on-line and online, and didn't have any suggestions for the whether the term "businesspeople" should be one word or two. In other words, you have to use your own judgment, or defer to the most current accepted usage.

Spell checkers and other tools offered by most computer programs are certainly helpful and people should take full advantage of them. But whatever ewe dew, peas make sure you use the best tool: your own judgment.

Gary Blake is a Port Washington, NY-based writing consultant who presents on-site business writing seminars throughout the United States. Dr. Blake offers an editorial Hotline as well as one-on-one training by phone, fax, and e-mail. Dr. Blake can be reached at (516) 767-9590 or by e-mail at His web site is located at

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