Best Practices for Students #3: Spell-check Is Not Your Friend!

A conspiracy is afoot, my friends. Microsoft is in on it, for sure, but they’re only the public face of what may be the vastest, most insidious plot to undermine America’s credibility ever carried out. I’m pretty sure the North Koreans are in on it, and the Teachers’ Union. And MTV, definitely. Their plan: through the cunning manipulation of word processing software, particularly the spell-checking function, they hope to make Americans look stupid and awkward in front of the rest of the world.

And it’s working!

Here’s how it works: you finish a paper in the bleary-eyed dead of night, mere hours before it’s due. You hit the spell-check button, and run through your errors, generally hitting “change”, “change”, “change” and on and on without really looking at the errors spell-check claims to have found or the changes it recommends. When you’re done, maybe you take a quick glance at the page – no red squiggles? Good, you’re golden.

Except, you’re not. Spell-check will catch the most obvious errors, but it’s fairly blind to matters of context and subtlety. All it does is check each word against a list of known words – if a word in your text isn’t on its list, it suggests the closest match. For most college-level writing, you will be using words that will not be on its list – these words have to be added to the dictionary manually, which requires a little more attention than the average last-minute proofreader can muster. More than that, though, spell-check doesn’t see a problem with a word that’s misspelled, as long as it still spells something. (Word 2007 is supposed to have some ability to catch these words, but the program is still so new that the scope of its abilities aren’t clear. Plus, most people will be using pre-Office 2007 software – either Office 2003 or XP, or WordPerfect, Works, or OpenOffice, which do not handle contextual misspellings.)

This is where you start to look stupid. If you write “Their are three things you should have in you’re bag at all times”, spell-check thinks that’s fine. Your human audience, however – your professor, maybe fellow students, maybe a college admissions committee, or whomever – won’t think you’re fine, they’ll think you’re a bit slow, lacking a basic command of the English language. This is especially embarrassing if English is your native language!

The conspirators are counting on this – they want you to look silly, and nothing looks sillier than not knowing the difference between “are” and “our”. But, of course, you claim that you actually do know the difference – and you probably do, but what good does that do you? Prospective employers won’t ask, nor will grad school admission boards, nor anyone else.

Meanwhile, the folks at Microsoft and their Korean co-conspirators are laughing and laughing, even as they shift their investment portfolios out of American companies and into Indian and Turkish corporations – knowing that the Turks and Indians will be more than prepared to step in with clearly-written language when America crumbles under the weight of its own mockability.

There are, of course, things we can do to prevent this future from unfolding and to stop this global conspiracy in its tracks. First of all, know your tools; understand how spell-check works and how to make changes to its functionality. For instance, if there’s words you mistype a lot, did you know you can add them to Word’s auto-correct list? (Other programs that auto-correct likely have the same ability.) Some years ago, I worked in a museum. Because of my let’s call it “unorthodox” typing style, I tend to mistype the word “museum” as “msueum”. Kind of a problem, right? No big deal, though – I just opened Word’s options and added my goofy spelling to the list, requesting that every time I type that abomination, Word simply replace it with “museum”. From then on, all was well in the world: I received medals and plaques for excellence in spelling the name of the organization consistently, the museum received grants and gifts because of the fine treatment of its name on grant applications and other communications, overnight art became literally the single most important thing to the world’s citizens. That’s why there’s no more reality shows.

OK, back to reality now: another thing you can do to prevent the imminent outsourcing of your future jobs to Nigeria, where well-formed English flows like sweetened tea from the tongues of the locals, is to… OK, you’re not going to like this. So sit down, grab your comfort blanket, and take a deep breath. The other thing is to finish your work at least a day early and then proofread it before it’s due. Better yet, have someone you trust – that is, someone who can tell you how dumb you are without it hurting your feelings; this is an excellent test of the strength and quality of your relationships, by the way – read your work and tell you what mistakes you’ve made. Note: this only works if your reader can spell.

If it were only your future at risk, I wouldn’t bother here. Surely some smart student in your classes will realize what you’re doing to yourself and position herself or himself accordingly to make sure that your goals and dreams land squarely on her or his shoulders. That’s no big deal (for her or him, anyway – it might upset you a bit, but that’s competition for you. What’re you gonna do?). Unfortunately, with the future of the free world hanging on your willingness to create well-crafted prose, I feel obligated to intervene here. If you want Bill Gates, Kim Jong-Il, and the 14-year old Chinese kids who will write the future’s business requirement documents, requests for proposal, and grants for a tenth of what you’d charge to win, by all means, keep using spell-check as your only line of defense against typos. But if you care at all about the world you’re in, please, I beg you – your country begs you! – be just a little more careful with the typos.

Special super-bonus reading: 10 flagrant grammar mistakes that make you look stupid

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