The Advantages and Disadvantages of Spell Checkers

Screenshot of spell checker

A spell checker is a computer application that identifies possible misspellings in a text by referring to the accepted spellings in a database. Also called spell check, spell-checker, spellchecker and spelling checker.

Most spell checkers function as part of a larger program, such as a word processor or search engine.

Examples and Observations

  • "'Don't they teach you how to spell these days?'
    "'No,' I answer. 'They teach us to use spell-check.'"
    (Jodi Picoult, House Rules. Simon & Schuster, 2010)

Spell Checkers and the Brain

  • "Psychologists have found that when we work with computers, we often fall victim to two cognitive ailments--complacency and bias--that can undercut our performance and lead to mistakes. Automation complacency occurs when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security. . . .
    "Most of us have experienced complacency when at a computer. In using e-mail or word-processing software, we become less proficient proofreaders when we know that a spell-checker is at work." (Nicholas Carr, "All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines." The Atlantic, October 2013)
  • "[W]hen it comes to autocorrect, spellcheck, and their ilk, those who would blame digital technology for language decay are not entirely wrong. Our brains seem to become less vigilant when we know a grammatical safety net will catch us. A 2005 study found that students who got a high score on the verbal section of either the SAT or the Gmat missed twice as many errors proofreading a letter in Microsoft Word with the program’s squiggly colored lines highlighting likely mistakes as they did when the spell-check software was turned off." (Joe Pinsker, "Punctuated Equilibrium." The Atlantic, July-August 2014)

Microsoft's Spellchecker

  • "Microsoft's language experts also track word requests, as well as frequently corrected 'words,' to assess whether those words should be added to the Speller dictionary (Speller is the trademark name of Microsoft's spell-checker). One recent request was pleather, meaning a plastic faux leather, which was added because of a lobbying effort by the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. If you've got the latest goods from Microsoft, pleather shouldn't get a red squiggly.
    "In other cases, real words are intentionally kept out of the program's dictionary. A calender is a machine used for a specialized manufacturing process. But most people see calender as a misspelling of calendar. The wordsmiths at Microsoft have decided to keep calender out of the program's dictionary, figuring that at the end of the day it's more useful to fix so many misspelled calendars, than it is to cater to the sensibilities of a small subset of the population who happen to know of, and want to write about, calenders. Similar homophones (computer people call them 'common confusables') include words like rime, kame, quire, and leman." (David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue. Collins, 2008)

The Limitations of Spellcheckers

  • "In fact, you have to be quite good at spelling and reading in order to use a spellchecker effectively. Typically, if you have misspelled a word the spellchecker will offer a list of alternatives. Unless your initial attempt is reasonably close to the correct spelling, you are unlikely to be offered sensible alternatives, and, even if you are, you have to be able to make sense of what is on offer. You and your pupils also have to be aware of the limitations of spellcheckers. First, you may correctly spell a word but simply use the wrong one; for example, 'After I had eaten my super I went straight to bed.' A spellchecker will not spot that it should be 'supper' not 'super' (did you spot the mistake?). Second, the spellchecker does not recognize some perfectly acceptable words." (David Waugh and Wendy Jolliffe, English 5-11: A Guide for Teachers, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2013)

Spellcheckers for Writers With Learning Disabilities

  • "Spellcheckers have revolutionised the lives of many dyslexic people and come to the rescue of beleaguered editors. Some snags still arise, as when homophones are used incorrectly. The speech option spellchecker can overcome these difficulties by giving definitions and using them in sentences for clarification and meaning. Some find it helpful if the spellchecker is turned off when they are doing the first draft of a piece of writing, otherwise the frequent interruptions (because of their many spelling errors) interfere with their train of thought."
    (Philomena Ott, Teaching Children with Dyslexia: A Practical Guide. Routledge, 2007)

The Lighter Side of Spellcheckers

This apology was printed in the Observer's "For the Record" column on March 26, 2006:

  • "A paragraph in the article below fell victim to the curse of the electronic spellchecker. Old Mutual became Old Metal, Axa Framlingon became Axe Framlington and Alliance Pimco became Aliens Pico."
    "The Rev. Ian Elston was thinking ahead to Christmas services when his computer spell-checker changed the gifts of the Wise Men to 'golf, frankincense and myrrh.'" (Ken Smith, "Day of the Dead." HeraldScotland, November 4, 2013)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Spell Checkers." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). The Advantages and Disadvantages of Spell Checkers. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Advantages and Disadvantages of Spell Checkers." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).