Sunday, July 11, 2010

Know Your Tools: Spellcheck

Your word processor's spellchecker can be your good friend and your annoying enemy at the same time.  Do you know where your dictionary comes from?  Is it the standard dictionary that came with your word processor, or does it have words added by you or someone else: words that maybe don't apply.

Just so we're clear, the dictionary in your word processor doesn't have word meanings; it has word spellings.  If your word processor allows you to lookup a word's definition as you're typing, it's not using the on-board dictionary, but is instead probably going out to the web.   Very occasionally the program's dictionary incorporates a misspelling -- beware!  More often the problem is that it uses an alternate spelling you're not accustomed to, or you might have a British-English dictionary instead of a U.S. one (in this case, check your language or locale setting in the word processor's preferences).

Sometimes people cause trouble for themselves by adding entries to their dictionary that are misspelled.   Woe and lamentation!  You only have to do it once for the word in question to be forcibly misspelled by the word processor from then on.   I would hope that writers would be more careful about this sort of thing, but many writers are not very technically savvy, and this road to ruin is traveled with a mere click or two.  On the other hand, I have seen programmers, generally a very technically savvy bunch, insert all sorts of garbage into their dictionaries. These are people who know well how to add things to the dictionary, but too many of them don't know (or don't care) how to spell.

You might think that we writers have no reason to add words to our spelling dictionaries, but we often have names, particularly surnames and place names, that need to be added:  otherwise they'll be highlighted as misspellings on every occurrence.  Why not just ignore the highlighting, since you know it's wrong?  Because you can bet your lowercase m that some of the highlighted words are real errors.  In a sea of red squigglies, how will you know which to ignore and which need fixing?  It's simpler to add your words to the dictionary so that they are not pointed out as errors in the first place.

In order to avoid those little wiggly underlines that point out spelling errors, some of you turn off your spellchecker.  This solves the problem of having incorrect automatic misspellings forced upon you, but it also means that any spelling mistake on your part can slip through.  When the computer is ready, willing, and able to help you spell things properly, why miss out on the benefits of that digital brain?

Many people think of the spellchecker and the auto-corrector as the same thing (and I've been linking the two together here), but they're two different functions which you can enable or disable separately.  If you want your misspellings to be automatically corrected as you type, then enable automatic correction.  If you want your misspellings to be tagged with little wiggly underlines, then enable your spellchecker.  If you enable them both, then the only thing left misspelled and underlined will be words that are not in the spell checker's dictionary.

If you're writing historical fiction, fantasy, or sci-fi, you may have either words that are archaic, use an alternate spelling, or are made-up.  Your spellchecker will fight you on each and every one of these words unless you add them to its dictionary.  However, when you're working on other documents, all these special entries in your dictionary are dangerous rather than helpful.  This is where custom dictionaries come in handy.

You can make a custom dictionary for a given work or series or genre.  When you work on your novel, your spellchecker will be checking your words against a both the system dictionary and your custom dictionary (which includes all of your special words for your novel).  When you write your Christmas letter or business correspondence, you'll be able to use the standard dictionary alone, perhaps adding a different custom dictionary that has family names and places in it, or special business terms.  Don't get them mixed up!

You can even use more than one custom dictionary at a time.  Imagine you're a mystery writer, and you need the Latin names for poisonous plants as well as the names of numerous toxic chemical compounds.  But you also need a dictionary specific to the mystery series you're writing; it holds the character and place-names that you want to spell consistently across all the books in the series.  You'll be using all three dictionaries (standard, genre, and  series) together when you write.

It pays to be very careful when you add a word to one of your dictionaries -- make certain you're spelling your word properly, and that you're adding it to the right dictionary.  I rarely add anything to my system dictionary, although I've had to a couple of missing words to it, like dreamt (and now I see that my browser's dictionary doesn't recognize dreamt either, sigh).  If you have any doubt about previous entries, your word processor has a way to review and change / delete words in your custom dictionaries.  Look in the help.


  1. A tech man to the end, eh?

    I never add anything to my dictionary. Auto correct is the first thing I turn off when I get a new version of Word. It always corrects crap I don't want it to.

    My favorite part, that you don't mention, is the people who think spell/grammer check makes them immune to errors. My favorite example right now being the cistercian incident. (For those of you who don't know, a friend of mine wrote a paper about abortion for ethics class and said cistercian instead of cesarean. For those of you who don't know again, the cistercians were an old order of Catholic Monks. I assure you they'd be appalled to find themselves in an abortion paper.)

  2. Yes -- I also find that auto-correct "fixes" things that I don't want fixed, especially capitalization in tables and lists. I'd rather have it flag those things and let me decide than assume it knows best. But I ALWAYS have my spellchecker on.

    On the immunity issue, I got an email once where between the salutation and the body of a couple of short sentences, the subject's name, Mr. Brokish, was auto-corrected differently each time to Broken, Broker, Bookish, Brackish, and more. I thought it was a joke, but it turned out the sender had auto-correct on and she never proofreads the results.

  3. I don't think I have auto-correct. Or if I do, some kind soul turned it off. Spellcheck is okay. Doesn't help with my you're and your, and there, their, and they're problems.