Category : editing tools

Spellcheckers – the proofreader’s friend or foe?

Find and replace editing icons

You may not be a trained writer, but you’ve still laboured valiantly to the end of a marathon 26-page marketing report for an important client – an epic feat of writing endeavour, which has caused you to sacrifice numerous social engagements (not to mention the odd rainforest…).

At this point, the perfect scenario would be for you to send your lovingly crafted document off to a professional proofreader or editor and await their corrected version, before firing it off through cyberspace to your client’s waiting inbox…

Realistically, however, companies may not have a budget for professional proofreading or editing, so it’s far more likely that you’ll skim through the document on screen (a method, by the way, that has been proven to be significantly less accurate) and then take a few minutes to run a final “spellcheck”.

At this point, you would be well advised to exercise more than a smidgen of caution. Spellcheckers are not always the most reliable of assistants, so it’s dangerous – verging on syntactically suicidal – to blithely “accept” every suggestion that your friendly spellchecker proffers.

Certain typos still count as recognised English words, which means they will not necessarily show up as errors. Let’s look at just a few examples:

  • Form – instead of “from”, or vice versa.
  • Out – instead of “our”, or vice versa.
  • Assess – instead of “access”, or vice versa.
  • Of – instead of “or”, or vice versa.
  • If – instead of “is”, or vice versa.
  • Lead – instead of “led” (the former is part of the present tense of the verb “to lead” or is a noun that denotes a heavy metal; the second is the past participle of the verb “to lead”, e.g. “I have led”).
  • Manger – instead of “manager”.
  • Change – instead of “chance”, or vice versa.

Likewise, never do a blanket “find and replace” unless you are 100% certain that there is no margin for error.

For example, if you want to change the word “rot” to “rota”, unless you ensured that you entered a space before and after “rot” in the “search” box, you could end up changing phrases such as “he wrote” and “it was a really grotty day” to “he wrotae” and “it was a really grotaty day.”

Similarly, if you want to change the word “son” to “daughter” and to apply this change blanket-fashion, watch out! This could lead to a phrase such as “his impersonations…” becoming “his imperdaughterations”…. Which is a very good reason indeed for remembering to run a “final final spellcheck after you’ve executed any “find and replace” operation. Of course, a spellchecker should then pick this up, but you don’t want to take any risks!

Another risk with a “blanket” find and replace comes if you’ve been writing about a company called “Derek Smith Limited” and you find that they’ve recently changed their name to “Derek Smith Incorporated”.

For reasons of speed, it might be tempting simply to search for the word Limited” and press “replace all” to substitute the word “Incorporated” with the word “Limited” in each instance.

However, somewhere in the text, the word “limited” might occur in a sentence such as “He agreed to try this for a limited period of time”. The result of a blanket substitution would then be the rather nonsensical “He agreed to try this for a incorporated period of time”…

Which brings me neatly to another point. If you are replacing a word that begins with a consonant by one that starts with a vowel, remember that before you search for the word “motor”, for example, with a view to changing it to “engine”, you need to search for any instances where the indefinite article is used before the word, i.e. “a motor” and change this to “an engine”.  Otherwise, if you simply dive in and change all instances of the word “motor” to “engine”, you could end up with “a engine” appearing in your text.

All these examples highlight the importance of reviewing substitutions one at a time. Use the humble “next” button and don’t be tempted by the speedy “replace all” approach.

Obviously, spellcheckers and find/replace tools do have their uses; however, it’s wise to bear in mind that while they are certainly very helpful when it comes to avoiding basic typos and for saving time, they are anything but foolproof!