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Are You Smarter Than Your Spell Checker?

I hope so. I really, really hope so. The first spell checkers appeared on personal computers in the early 1980s. At first they seemed like a godsend. Now a generation has passed and the research results are showing that we have become dependent upon spell checkers.

That is not a good thing. Spell checkers do not catch all errors, and neither do grammar checkers. Neither of these tools will ever be better than a well- educated human. For example, some spell/grammar checking software will not alert the author to the error in this sentence: Mayoral candidate Anderson has proven himself in similar rolls. (‘rolls’ should be ‘roles.’)

A recent study reports that with spell checker turned off, students with high verbal SAT scores made an average of five errors when proofreading, a one-page business letter. Students with lower SAT scores made an average of twelve errors with the same letter.

So what happened to these students’ performance with spell checker turned on? That gap in scores disappeared. High-scoring SAT students made an average of sixteen errors, and low-scoring students made it seventeen errors.

The report’s conclusion is that students are more careful with spell checker turned off.

So should we turn our backs on spell checkers and grammar checkers? Certainly not. Many common misspellings are caught. But these programs are not perfect, and nothing beats an educated human editor.

Here, take a little quiz. Turn off your spell checker. Look at the following four sentences. Can you identify which one sentence is correct?

Whose that knocking at my door?
Their coats are hanging in the hall.
Those apple’s are too old.
Your a dollar short and a day late, my friend.

If you answered that the second sentence is correct, congratulations are in order. You are smarter than a spell checker. My spell checker offered this correction for the third sentence: ‘Those apples’s are too old.’ Oh dear.


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