The question above, or variations of it, was fairly typical of the reaction I encountered when telling friends and acquaintances that I was taking a proofreading course. Of course, the unspoken assumption behind the question was almost certainly that spellcheck had sent proofreaders packing, along with lamplighters and chimney sweeps, to the occupational graveyard. “But no,” I’d protest, “spellcheck has its limitations, everyone relies on it too much, I … I …”. Well, there’s only so much protesting one can make at a party without seeming like one doth protest too much, so eventually I settled on the tactic of saying something like, “oh there’s life in the old dog yet … any more wine?” But here’s the thing – we’re not at a party and you’re not here to enjoy yourself. Let me explain.
Everyone does rely on spellcheck too much!
Most people with any experience of using spellcheck software – ie anyone who uses a computer – will be aware that it will happily let you type “sod” when you meant “son”, “insolent” when you meant “indolent” and “emend” when you meant “amend”. Grammar checking software may allow you to type “the politicians’ misdemeanours” when what you meant was “the politician’s misdemeanours”.
In other words, spellcheck and grammar checking software cannot know the author’s intentions, it can only alert him or her to a word that doesn’t exist, or to grammar that is just plain wrong. Type any old gobbledegook and red and blue squiggly lines will start to appear before you and the author can take action if required (or not, as when they appear, annoyingly, under famous author names like Franzen, Le Guin or Gaiman – but that’s another story). However, only paying attention to those squiggles is all too easy and there’s the rub. Spellcheck is a valuable tool but the traps of becoming over reliant on it are obvious to see, not least of which is the laziness it has induced in all of us in not rereading and checking our own written work more carefully – something previous generations took for granted, perhaps.
Of course, I’m being slightly disingenuous, because proofreaders and editors themselves use spelling and grammar checking tools. However, they use these as a safety net, learning to look past the red and blue squiggles to look for the errors that spellcheck just doesn’t pick up. And when an author’s intentions aren’t clear, the editor can query rather than simply overlook them in the way that spellcheck does. There’s much more to the editor’s and proofreader’s role than simply being a glorified spellcheck in human form but I’ll leave that for another post.
I’ll sign off with one more example of a spellcheck oversight, and one that was given to me and my classmates many years ago by my fearsome English teacher Mr Law and, by the way, many years before the word spellcheck could be found in any dictionary. Neither of the following two sentences are actually wrong at all, but it’s a rather amusing example of how a typo can utterly change intended meanings. Spellcheck, of course, likes them both equally – no squiggles anywhere!
- “Jim sat down before the fire and felt rosy all over.”
- “Jim sat down before the fire and felt Rosy all over.”
I rest my case, m’lud.