Don’t blindly trust the spell checker

We know that the ‘free’ or built-in spell check of, for example, Microsoft Word or Google Docs is not watertight: unfortunately it does not give us any guarantee for an error-free text. What are the reasons why the spell checker doesn’t detect certain errors and what can we do to deliver a perfect, spotless text despite this imperfection?

Why we can’t blindly trust the spell checker

1. Simple spell check routines work with word lists

The spell checker works with a built-in dictionary of existing Dutch words and cannot see the context of a word in a sentence. For example, it will approve an error as ‘surprise’ (at a cremation) instead of ‘surprise’, as ‘surprise’ and ‘surprise’ are both existing Dutch words.

2. The spell checker only checks the spelling of single words

“This sentence is worthless.”

The above sentence counts correctly for the spell check, since the individual words ‘de’, ‘ze’, ‘waarde’ and ‘loos’ are existing Dutch words. Here too, the spell checker does not check whether the sentence structure is correct, but only checks whether the individual words are written correctly.

3. Duplicate words that are next to each other in a sentence are always considered wrong

‘Did you write your sentence correctly?’

The spelling checker sees this correctly written sentence as wrong, because twice the word ‘you’ appears next to each other in the sentence.

4. The spell checker doesn’t know what you mean, whether your sentence structure is correct and it calculates all compounds correctly

And… that’s not really good.

A test!

Below I have deliberately misspelled a sentence. Let’s see if you see all the errors and see what the spell checker does with them.

‘In the end, one small bowel transplant proved fatal to them.’

How many mistakes did you get out? The standard Microsoft Word spell checker sees zero errors in the above sentence. However: the sentence contains no fewer than five errors.

Here’s the error-free version:

‘In the end a small bowel transplant proved fatal to them.’

Let’s take a look at the mistakes

  1. The words ‘eventually’ have to be written together. The spell checker calculates ‘finally’ well in this sentence, because the words loose also occur in the Dutch language and are spelled correctly as individual words.
  2. The words ‘eventually’ and ‘finally’ mean the same thing. One of the two words is duplicated and must go. We are talking about a tautology, which means in Greek: ‘the same word’ (this is not a spelling error, by the way, but a stylistic error). In a tautology, the full meaning of a word is expressed again in another word.
  3. The word ‘one’ should really be written here without the acute accent on both e’s. With dashes it is a numeral and since it is misspelled ‘their’ plural, this is an error. After all, it seems to me that they cannot die with several people from just one operation.
  4. I skip over another misspelled word and go to the word ‘their’. The rule is that you should use ‘them’ after a preposition (in this case the word ‘for’) or any preposition you can think of.
  5. And… the last but not the least mistake: ‘small bowel transplantation’. This one is very special. Note: Word’s spell checker will approve the misspelled words ‘small bowel transplant’ and ‘small bowel transplant’ and will approve the misspelled ‘small bowel transplant’ error.

Magnifying glass on keyboard.

Are there solutions?

Yes, there are ways to deliver an error-free text, possibly in combination with a spelling checker.

1. You can manually remove words from the dictionary

The uncommon word ‘surprise’, for example, can be deleted from your glossary. After deleting, it will misjudge this word if you type it by accident instead of surprise. This solution is not ideal, however, because you have banned an existing Dutch word from the glossary.

2. The ‘Multi-Eye Principle’

A free spell checker is a fantastic invention, but for a guaranteed error-free piece of text you will really need to use multiple helplines. Let friends, acquaintances or family who are proficient in language take another look.

3. Leave your text overnight

This may sound a bit simple, but it really works. You are often so focused on the content of your text that you read over the spelling and grammar mistakes. After putting the text aside for one night, you are guaranteed to find some mistakes or want to change some sentence structures.


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