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The Dangers of Relying on Spell Check and Grammar Check


Almost all word processing programs come equipped with a tool for checking both spelling and grammar. However, writers should be wary of the dangers of relying too heavily on these tools. For example:

"Spell check will not fined words witch are miss used butt spelled rite!"

An ordinary spell checker will find few or no errors in the above sentence. This is because spell checkers can only detect if words are spelled correctly, not if they are used correctly.

That being said, a spell checker is a handy tool and, therefore, should not be completely abandoned. However, writers should be cautioned from relying on it to catch every error. Spell check should be your first step in editing your document, not the only step!

The problems with trusting spell check

Below are just some of the dangers of relying on spell check:

  1. Spell check cannot help you with some proper names, such as "Heston" or "Jolie."
  2. Spell check will not detect the improper use of homonyms, such as "their" and "there."
  3. Spell check may flag words as errors which are indeed correct.
  4. Spell check does not always offer useful spelling suggestions for severely misspelled words.

For example, the following are some commonly misused words that standard spellcheckers will not catch:


The limitation of traditional spell checkers is epitomized by the often quoted poem, "Ode to the Spell Checker."

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.

Jerrold H. Zar

The lawyer and the sea sponge

Along these same lines, there is an amusing story that has circulated in the legal community regarding the dangers of spell check. According to the story, an attorney inadvertently replaced the words "sua sponte" (a Latin phrase for "on its motion") with the words "sea sponge" throughout his brief. This lead to some very embarrassing sentences, such as:

"An appropriate instruction limiting the judge's criminal liability in such a prosecution must be given sea sponge explaining that certain acts or omissions by themselves are not sufficient to support a conviction."

"It is well settled that a trial court must instruct sea sponge on any defense, including a mistake of fact defense."

As one would expect, the attorney's error, while certainly entertaining to the rest of us, drastically weakened his credibility in the eyes of the court and made him the butt of many of his colleagues' jokes.

Although spell checkers are fairly straight forward and user-friendly, they are only as good as the writer's ability to use them. For example, most spell checkers include options to customize the dictionary to include proper nouns and acronyms. Other features include setting the spell checker to "auto correct" which automatically corrects the spelling of frequently misspelled words. These features can all improve the tool's effectiveness.

The limitations of grammar checkers

Unfortunately, grammar checkers are similarly limited. They are, in fact, more limited than spell checkers. The limitations have nothing to do with technology or software, but rather are caused by the nature of grammar itself.

For example, a traditional grammar checker will detect no problems with the following passage.

"Marketing are bad for brand big and small. You Know What I am Saying? It is no wondering that advertisings are bad for company in America, Chicago and Germany. ... McDonald's and Coca Cola are good brand. ... Gates do good marketing job in Microsoft."

This is truly frightening considering that each of the sentences in the passage contains numerous grammatical errors!

Also, consider the following sentence:

"Thinking it was open, the door was really closed."

Grammar check will alert the writer that the main clause may contain a verb in the passive voice. But there is no passive voice here, just a thinking door.

Grammar check also frequently flags perfectly good grammar as bad. Type the following sentence into a document:

"How was your son's wedding?"

When you run grammar check, "was your son's" is flagged as incorrect and the phrase "your son was's" is suggested. In this case, your grammar check has turned a perfectly fine sentence into a garbled mess! Therefore, it is wise to think about the change suggested, rather than simply accept it as correct.

Great grammar resources

Looking up the correct spelling of a word is as easy as using an online dictionary; looking up proper grammar, however, can be more difficult. Most of us do not remember the finer points of grammar that we learned in the sixth grade, such as gerunds and dangling modifiers. Therefore, it is helpful to have a reference book on grammar handy. Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" is the classic book on the subject, but professional writers are also fond of Working with Words and When Words Collide.

The bottom line is that technology, while useful and time saving, is still not advanced enough to substitute for old-fashioned human proofreading. Therefore, writers should always allow ample time for proofreading and learn tools to improve their proofreading skills. One of the best ideas I have learned is to make a list of spelling and grammar errors that you make frequently so that you can proofread every document with special attention to these problem areas. Remember, you need to pick up where your spell checker and grammar checker leave off!

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