Spell-Checkers: the Dust-Buster of Word-Processors

“The computer is only as smart as its user.”
“A computer is a machine that makes very fast, very accurate mistakes.”

We’re all familiar with these expressions, and those of us who’ve chosen the honored profession of teaching are reminded of them every time we sit down to grade a stack of student essays. It’s hardly surprising that the time-saving concept of the spell-checker built into word-processors would be appealing to the IPhone generation, nor is it surprising that in the age of texting, tweeting, and otherwise communicating in as few words as possible, that students have forgotten how to spell, let alone the value of proofreading. As someone growing increasingly accustomed to writing in academic jargon and battling daily with a word-processor that doesn’t recognize terms like heteronormative and liberatory, I’m constantly reminded that my spell-checker is only one useful tool that aids me in writing—my brain is the other.

I traditionally teach my students what I’ve come to call the “rule of 3”; that is, proofread any piece of writing at least 3 times. However, it’s become glaringly obvious over the years that to many, if not all of my students, running the spell-checker once constitutes the entirety of best practices in proofreading. The spell-checker, I insist, is the dust-buster of word processors—effective for tidying up your document, but you need something a bit more powerful to make it pristine and presentable. The “rule of 3” as I call it is more time-consuming than actually difficult.

1. Read through the document, spotting and correcting errors manually where you find them.
2. Run the spell-checker to pick up anything you might have missed, checking each change before you accept it to make sure that it is, in fact, the word or phrase you want to use. There’s a reason why the spell-checker offers changes as “suggestions”.
3. Read through the document a second time; when you do this, if you’re reading carefully, you will almost invariably make a few minor adjustments, especially if the spell-checker has insistently removed a comma where there clearly ought to be one, or protested a lack of subject-verb agreement where subject and verb are in fact co-existing quite peacefully.
4. Since you’ve made changes to your document, it’s best to run the dust-buster once more to check for stray crumbs.
5. Now that you’ve done that, read it through once more—preferably out loud—to listen to the flow of your sentences. If you have difficulty reading fluidly, you more than likely need to restructure any awkwardly-worded sentences.

Of course, it’s flat-out naivety on my part to expect students who consider themselves to have gone the extra mile if they run the spell-checker once to do it twice, to say nothing of manually proofreading their documents. More often than not, the results of such carelessness make me want to grind my teeth to splinters, but occasionally I’ll find a gem that offers me a moment of free entertainment in an otherwise tedious task. Allow me to share with you a few of my favorites:

1. When spelling out the number 6, students frequently insert an ‘e’ where they ought to insert an ‘I’. I admit, I’m hardly surprised to find such a slip in so many college students’ papers; calling Dr. Freud. Nevertheless, this is a supreme example of an instance where more than a cursory spell-check is necessary, since the spell-checker is most likely going to pass over the recognized standard word without considering the fact that it hardly fits within the context of the sentence. (Spell-checker minus 1).
2. “It’s a viscous cycle”; I typically run across this one in student essays dealing with the environment or issues of environmental sustainability. For instance: When we waste the earth’s resources, we create a viscous cycle that will continue with future generations. Hmm, a thick, gloopy, glutinous cycle; highly descriptive, I admit, but I think the expression you’re looking for is “vicious cycle”. (Spell-checker minus 2, in case you’re still keeping score).
3. In an essay about Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel /Dracula/, a student wrote that Jonathan Harker escaped Castle Dracula and was cared for by a religious covenant. Really? I thought he escaped to a convent. I wasn’t aware that he fled into the desert and struck a deal with the children of Israel to protect him against the evil King Vampire. (Spell-checker minus 3).
4. Also found in a student essay on Dracula: apparently, Dracula was written by Bram Stroker, not Bram Stoker, or so one of my students wrote. The blame here rests squarely on the shoulders of the student, as I’m fairly certain that the spell-checker would have sucked up that particular crumb (mine just did, anyway). I must confess I found this particular typo inappropriately amusing, and couldn’t help chuckling to myself when, upon reading the mistake, I recalled that Bram Stoker died of tertiary syphilis. I allowed my mind to dwell on the delicious irony for several moments before I continued reading.
5. I’ve saved this one for last, as it’s my favorite. Several years ago a student of mine wrote an essay about building accessibility for people who use wheelchairs, and said essay contained the word “handicapability”. (I seriously considered sending this one in to the Reader’s Digest). If this were an actual word in standard English, the definition would probably look something like this: Handicapability: noun- the ability to be handicapped or to have a handicap. Well, now that I know I have the ability to be blind—that it’s all about exercising my potential—that really informs my understanding of my handicap. Really; let’s just take a moment to admire how this word effectively renders itself meaningless—the ability to be disabled.

As much as these errors amuse me in the short-term, I ultimately find them unsettling, especially today after reading this article in the Gainesville Sun about Governor Rick Scott’s not-so-brilliant plan to cut Liberal Arts programs (which typically house English departments and university writing programs)from the Florida state university system. What a brilliant plan, Governor Scott; let me know how that works out. What place, I wonder, does Governor Scott think sound literacy skills have in the well-rounded education, and where, I wonder, does he think students acquire such skills?
So, Mr. Governor, go ahead with this cut to the humanities, but don’t come crying to me when your finely-educated college graduates can’t succeed in the professional arena because they lack even the most rudimentary of literacy skills to write a proper business letter.

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