After the Deadline

Rethink Your Relationship with Your Spell Checker

Posted in Talking to myself by rsmudge on March 8, 2010

Last week, switched.com reviewed several grammar checkers to celebrate National Grammar Day. The tested text was interesting to me and it inspired this post.

Its common for users to rely entirely on the in built proofreading capabilities of a word processor. Since the technology became standard in Microsofts Word in the 90’s countless cubicle dwellers and students have stopped carefully proofreading they’re own writing they have instead trust the automated spellcheck and grammar correcting features of their office product of choice to identify errors. We have carefully crafted this text to test the accuracy of these features, there are roughly 10 common grammatical mistakes in this paragraph. No matter good these tools perform there no replacement for carefully rereading you’re writing.

I agree and I think it’s time people rethink their relationship with their spell checker.

My friend Karen once told me a story about giving her husband feedback on a school paper. She noticed that he really liked semicolons. She confronted him on this and he said that Microsoft Word kept suggesting them and he kept accepting them. This is not a good situation.

Many writers rely on their spell checker to a fault. They see their spell checker as a tool to verify that a document is correct and ready to go with no effort on their part. If you want to verify that a document is correct, you need to reread it and look for errors. A great technique is to read the document backwards. Purdue’s Online Writing Lab has more tips like this.

If writers need to reread their documents, then what is the use of tools like After the Deadline? I look at After the Deadline as a tool that teaches users about writing. When asked what I do, I sometimes reply that I’m an English teacher with many thousands of students. No one gets the joke. It’s ok.

After the Deadline does a good job of finding its/it’s errors. It does not find all of them. I think this is OK. If a user checks their document and has a habit of misusing its/it’s, they’ll probably see a lot of errors. If this user is inquisitive, they may quick click explain. By doing this they’ll learn why the error is an error. By reading the feedback during the writing process, the lesson has the most potential to sink in.
Feedback is most valuable when it’s immediate. After the Deadline makes you a better writer through immediate feedback.

9 Responses

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  1. Kristy said, on March 9, 2010 at 12:29 am

    Amen, sir! I think people should be required to obtain a “speller’s license” before they are allowed to use an automatic spell- or grammar-checker. I’m so saddened by the loss of spelling ability. I’ve told my classmates: “Word is NOT God!” It’s not always right. Learn to think for yourself!!! Sheesh.

  2. HR said, on March 9, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    If this user is inquisitive, they may quick explain.

    Er, did you mean “click”?

    • rsmudge said, on March 9, 2010 at 8:06 pm

      Yeap, that’s exactly what I meant.

      • scribu said, on March 11, 2010 at 5:52 pm

        Brililant way to prove the point :))

  3. Jeffro said, on March 11, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    Thanks to After The Deadline, I’ve reacquainted myself with the use of its versus it’s. I’ve also become better at using Their versus There.

    I remember when going through elementary school, I used to pride myself on the ability to spell words such as refrigerator. This is before I ever had a chance to use a spell checking program.

    Today, my spelling is disastrous and if I had to perform all of my writing by hand on a piece of paper, I have no doubts I would fail English class.

    I just try to get the word I’m thinking of as close as possible so the spell checker can suggest words I meant to say and hope that it has the one I want.

    • rsmudge said, on March 12, 2010 at 2:48 pm

      There’s something to be said for letting a computer do what it’s good at and letting us do what we’re good at. Although I can related. I got a GPS one year for Christmas. That thing changed my life. I was getting places on time without getting lost. Then one day, the stupid thing died. I was traumatized. I had just moved and it turns out that because of the GPS, I never paid attention to where I was going. Places I’d been to a bunch of times I could no longer find. I eventually adjusted and started using a map again. Now I have another GPS and the cycle begins anew.

  4. Chip Bennett said, on March 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I agree with everything you’ve said.

    On the other hand, of all the tested grammar checkers, I expect that AtD is most likely to improve over time. I imagine AtD should learn to handle hominyms (they’re/their, your/you’re), run-on sentences, and subject-verb agreement (including multiple verbs) rather easily, especially as compared to the other grammar checkers. Other grammatical errors in the test text probably just represent new (or more refined) conventions, such as correct pluralization of numbers (and acronyms, etc.), and when to write numbers as numbers or as text.

    The only test text error that might prove to be rather difficult to detect is the miissing “how” from “no matter how good.”

    I think AtD is great, Raphael! It is one of the reasons that compelled me to switch to using the RTE by default in WordPress.

    • rsmudge said, on March 12, 2010 at 2:52 pm

      It should. AtD does really well with homophones. Some of the they’re/their and your/you’re are particularly tricky. It uses rules to try and catch those as the statistical approach didn’t hold up well. Subject-verb agreement is tough because I’d have to parse a sentence down to the point where I’ve identified the subject, verb, and object phrases. I could then write rules against this.

      My real goal is to experiment with a community process that lets anyone write rules, test them out, and submit them. I find writing grammar rules to be a lot of fun. Kind of like a puzzle. It’s exciting to get one that finds a lot of errors without ever being wrong. If I’m able to make that excitement available to others, that could lead to more comprehensive coverage of grammar errors.

  5. Spell Check Is My Ultimate Crutch said, on March 11, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    [...] Mudge has published an interesting post that talks about re-thinking the relationship with the spell checker. His post made me reflect on just how dependent I’ve become on [...]


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