10 Mistakes Your Spell Checker Won’t Catch

Sophie Playle

Spell checkers are useful tools. But let’s face it – they’re not very clever. There are limits to the ‘rules’ that can be programmed into a piece of software. And since when did language always play by the rules anyway?

The ‘correct’ usage of language is dependent on so many factors – context, style and intention to name but a few. Spell checkers simply don’t have the capacity to provide what many people rely on them to do: fix everything.

Here are just 10 spell checker mistakes that can slip through the net. (Believe me, there are more!)

1.  Homophones (same-sounding words with different meanings)

They’re/their/there. Bare/bear. Compliment/complement. Practice/practise. Hair/hare. Plain/plane. Stationery/stationary. And hundreds more. These words have very different meanings, but it’s easy to confuse them with their homophones – either through not knowing the correct word to use, or simply because you’re caught up in the flow of your writing and have accidentally written the wrong word. Either way, your spell checker is unlikely to pick them up.

2. Incorrectly divided compound words

Earth quake. Snow flake. Court yard. All these examples should be one word, but, depending on the context, your spell checker will sometimes miss them, and many more like them. It’s usually a case of the spell checker not having the capacity to understand the context of the sentence; the words are correctly spelt on their own, but sometimes they should be compounded. Spell checker gets confused by this. Poor little guy.

3. Incorrect facts

‘Hey, it’s not my job,’ spell checker says defensively when you angrily realise you’ve written about whales with gills and that your character is reading a first edition of The Lord of the Rings published in 1997. In this instance, the human brain (and Google) is your friend. Spell checker is not.

4. Inconsistencies

Your character is called David on page 17 and Daniel on page 27. Someone climbs three flights of stairs, then leaves through the back door. You’ve used ‘while’ on one page and ‘whilst’ on another. And spell checker doesn’t even notice. Good one, spell checker.

5. Incorrect verb tenses

Carol picked up the gun. The weight of it felt good in her hand. Reassuring. Secure. She makes sure the safety is on, and slips it into the waistband of her jeans.

What’s wrong here? Yup, the tense changes. We go from past to present. Spell checker just doesn’t care, though. I guess being a piece of software doesn’t give you much of a concept of time!

6. Repetition

Used the same word twice in a row? Oh! That’s something spell checker can pick up on. Used the same phrase or sentence twice in a row? Said the same thing twice but in a different way? Spell checker can’t see it. It’s looking too closely to see the bigger picture.

7. Missing words

‘Did you have a nice time at party?’ ‘No, it ruined by a gang of vampires.’

There are two missing words in those sentences, and spell checker doesn’t pick up on either of them. This is a really difficult error to fix yourself because, as the writer, you already know what you’re trying to say – so your brain fills in the blanks for you. Another pair of eyes – human eyes – is the only way around this.

8. Dialogue formatting

‘I don’t know who he thinks he is.’ She said. ‘But he can’t just show up and turn all the teachers into frogs.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ James smiled. ‘I prefer them that way.’

That ‘She said’ is all wrong. There should be a comma after ‘is’, not a full stop, and ‘She’ should be lowercase. Because the speaker’s sentence isn’t finished, there should be a comma, not a full stop, after ‘said’ and ‘But’ should be lowercase. Spell checker just doesn’t understand that, though. Nor does it understand that ‘he smiled’ is an action, not a dialogue tag, so should be its own sentence. This exchange should read:

‘I don’t know who he thinks he is,’ she said, ‘but he can’t just show up and turn all the teachers into frogs.’

‘Oh, I don’t know.’ James smiled. ‘I prefer them that way.’

9. Parenthetical commas

Commas are pretty complicated little blighters. They can be used in so many different ways, to different effect. Sometimes their usage can be subjective; sometimes it’s not. The parenthetical comma is one that has a strict rule: if you introduce one parenthetical comma, you must use its closing counterpart (unless the parenthetical statement is at the beginning or end of a sentence). Mostly, they don’t like to be alone. Spell checker doesn’t sympathise.

10. Dangling participles

Participles are the -ing and -ed forms of verbs. A ‘dangling’ participle is a participle (usually at the beginning of a sentence) that seems to modify a word other than the word intended. For example: Having been thrown in the air, the dog caught the ball. (Poor doggy!) Think your spell checker is smart enough to catch these errors? Think again!

Don’t get me wrong – spell checkers are useful. But they should only be used as a first step in the editing process and never, ever relied upon to create a publishable manuscript. It’s much better to hire a human brain.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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