Under the Radar — Why Spellcheckers Sometimes Aren’t Enough

When’s the last time you dialed a phone number from memory? If you have a newer car, when’s the last time you actually used a key to unlock the door? If you’re like many, you regularly use a spellchecker to edit your documents. However, they’re often not intuitive enough to pick up on common mistakes. Automation and technology are wonderful things, but too much dependence on them can “spell” disaster. Here are a few of the many errors that can fly right under the spellcheck radar.

Contraction Conundrums

Image via Flickr by mandiberg

Whenever editors see an apostrophe, alarm bells rightfully go off in their heads. For example, “We will sell no wine before it’s time” (I may be showing my age a bit with this reference) means something altogether different than “before its time.” Whenever that apostrophe pokes out its little head, it means that some part of a word was removed to save space and make pronunciation easier. In this case, expanding the previous statement to read “We will sell no wine before it is time” means that wine sales open promptly at 6 a.m., like a disreputable bar. It’s not much of a slogan with that apostrophe included, but just try telling that to your spellchecker.

The simple trick of expanding a contraction also solves the “who’s” vs. “whose” error. “Who’s toothbrush is this?” would expand to “Who is toothbrush is this?” which clearly has some issues. Expanding your contractions also helps with the “there, they’re, their” issue, since “they’re” can be changed to “they are” to verify grammatical accuracy. Same goes for “you’re” vs. “your.” Blowing things up may not solve international conflicts, but it sure works wonders when double-checking contractions.

Possessive Puzzlers

As long as we’re talking about apostrophes, let us not forget the zillions of folks that insist on adding an apostrophe whenever a word ends with an “S.” If you’re like most of the editors at CopyPress, you’ve gritted your teeth (to a degree that your orthodontist would definitely not approve of) when seeing a sign that says, “We Serve Taco’s.” What exactly does a taco own that would necessitate service?  A car, perhaps? One wonders what sort of car a taco would drive. I’m guessing a Pinto.

Adding an apostrophe and an “S” to the end of a word indicates possession. Adding the “S” alone indicates a plural noun. While seeing “We Serve Taco” instead could be erroneous, it’s entirely possible that the restaurant in question has but a single taco and will serve it to the highest bidder before closing down for the day. There is still more potential for grammatical accuracy than “Taco’s.” Most spellcheckers out there don’t comprehend such deeper taco meanings, so leave it to a borderline-OCD editor instead.

“Ten Items or Less”

If a vandalism charge weren’t a possibility, I’d carry a Sharpie to the supermarket and correct this irritating error. “Less” is used when you can’t quantify an amount, as in, “I need to eat less cheese.” If it can be counted (i.e., items in your cart), you use “fewer.” Go ahead and tell me, “This line is for people buying ten items or fewer. Get lost.” I would so appreciate the grammatical accuracy of the statement, I’d forgive the insult.

Then, Than, and the Other

There’s a huge difference between “then” and “than” that your computer may not be aware of. “Then” always refers to time, and “than” is used to compare things. Using the wrong word can make a sentence confusing and just plain wrong. “You’re taller then you look in that picture” technically means that firstly, you exist as a taller person, and afterward, you look into a picture that the speaker is indicating.

Compl(e/i)ment Complex

Spellcheckers miss this one all the time. “Compliment” is to say something nice, and “complement” is to go nicely with something else. “That dress complements your shoes quite well.” “Oh, thanks for the compliment on my complement.” An easy way to remember which one is which — the spelling that uses the “I” is the “say something nice” version, and “I” love it when people say nice things about me.

The Good, the Bad, and the Badly

“Bad” and “badly” are misused all the time, and I’ve even written a poem about correcting a complete stranger about this. If you overhear someone say “I feel badly about it,” what they’re actually stating is that they’re no good at feeling things. Maybe it’s some sort of emotional problem that can be corrected with a newfangled pharmaceutical product. Just remember that “badly” is an adverb and always describes a verb. “I write badly” is grammatically correct. Just don’t depend on a spellchecker to fix that.

Go With the Flow…or No?

Despite years of development, no spellchecker can recognize good writing from clumsy writing. For instance, grammar sticklers have forever damned the prospect of ending sentences with prepositions. However, when a sentence of his was awkwardly rearranged to avoid this supposed pitfall, Winston Churchill famously replied, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

In other words, some sentences don’t read well when the rules of language are strictly adhered to. Note that the previous sentence ends with a preposition and sounds just fine, does it not? Over the years, it’s become acceptable to put aside this grammatical rule to make the language more user-friendly. English is supposed to work for us, not the other way around, so it’s constantly evolving to suit our needs. Only a human can know what feels right, and what feels wrong.

There’s no word for someone obsessed with grammar (unless you count “jerk,” but that’s usually reserved for people that are a bit more vocal about it). The closest thing, perhaps, is “logophile” — a lover of words. Remember, spellcheckers and computers are incapable of love, and it takes a special breed of nerd to qualify as one of the few, the proud, the logophiles. We can be an annoyance sometimes, but quite a handy team member when it comes to scrutinizing what will eventually end up on your blog or website.

About the author

Luke Salazar

Luke Salazar, Poet and Wile E. Coyote Super-Genius