The Failures of a Spellchecker

Do you need a proofreader when your computer has a spellchecker?

Yes! An automated spellchecker has some significant limitations, quite apart from the fact that it doesn’t check grammar, punctuation, or the overall sense of your sentences. The biggest problem for a spellchecker is homophones: words that sound the same but have different spellings and very different meanings. If you’ve written “threw” instead of “through”, your computer has no way of knowing which one you meant. To a literate human reader, though, “Fred looked threw the window…” is a bit of a howler, and you don’t want to be sending your manuscript off to an agent or publisher with mistakes like that. That’s why you need a human proofreader.

Some common mistakes that spellcheckers miss

Your and you’re – these common words confuse a lot of people. Your refers to belonging: “Have you got your book?” You’re is a contraction of “you are”: “You’re from France, aren’t you?”

Their, there and they’re – more common yet confusing words. Their, like your, indicates belonging: “They brought their bags.” There is a location: “He’s over there.” And they’re is a contraction of “they are”: “They’re over there, near their bags.”

Its and it’s – apostrophes cause a lot of trouble! Its indicates belonging: “The dog ate its bone.” It’s is a contraction of “it is”: “It’s a big bone.” Never put an apostrophe in “its” unless you can replace it with “it is”.

Brake and break – a brake is a thing on a car; a break is something broken, or a holiday. Both can also be verbs: “If you brake too hard, the cable might break.”

Affect and effect – a tricky one. Essentially, affect is the verb, effect is the noun: “I didn’t think it would affect me, but actually it had an effect.”

Compliment and complementcompliment means praise: “I complimented him on his nice trousers”; complement means to improve something, or go well with it: “His nice trousers complemented his bright shirt.”

Principal and principleprincipal is usually an adjective, meaning first or main: “the principal reason”; principle is a noun, meaning a fundamental proposition: “a matter of principle”.

Mould or mold?

There’s another problem with spellcheckers – the language they work in. There are different breeds of English – British, American and Australian – with different spellings (and grammar). I’ve edited books for British, American and Australian writers and it’s important to know the differences! One of the problems with spellcheckers on computers and phones is that they’re often automatically set to US English – if you’re a British writer, you might find your laptop changing “favourite” to “favorite”.

Common differences between British, US and Australian spellings

Britain and Australia use colour, favour and flavour; the US uses color, favor and flavor. Interestingly, Australians use labour except for the Labor Party.

America uses center and meter; Britain and Australia use centre and metre – except in poetry, and electricity meters.

Britain and Australia use defence and offence; America uses defense and offense.

In America, travelers go traveling and revelers go reveling; in Britain and Australia travellers go travelling and revellers go revelling.

Americans prefer ‘z’, as in realize, synchronize, criticize; the British and Australians prefer ‘s’, as in realise, synchronise, criticise.

And then there’s mould and mold, grey and gray, aeroplane and airplane

It’s best not to rely on an automatic spellchecker.

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