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How Microsoft Word’s spellcheck suggestions can botch your writing

Posted on November 16, 2016

 

In the early days of word processing, typists would’ve needed to either be something of a spelling wizard, or keep a physical dictionary next to their computer or typewriter at all times. No doubt this would have slowed down the speed of their work, as they would be constantly thumbing through the book making sure their spelling wasn’t letting them down.

Today, with most word processing devices including a spellcheck tool, it’s a lot easier and quicker to get spelling right, and any errors you might have made should be highlighted. In fact, with autocorrect facilities, we can often just have a vague stab at spelling a word and the software will do the work for us.

Spellchecks have evolved to pick up on grammatical errors too, and generally they do a good job. However, now and again, you get a suggestion that reminds you why human input is so important in the editing process.

As an editor, I often see Microsoft Word flag up some very curious and just plain wrong suggestions as to how certain passages of writing should be ‘corrected’. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about, all of which I’ve stumbled upon within the last few days:

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In the above instance, Word has misunderstood the grammatical structure of the sentence, and it’s down to the word ‘well’ falling into several lexical categories. It can be:

– A noun meaning an underground source of water
– An adjective meaning in good health, as in ‘I hope all is well’
– An adverb meaning in a good or satisfactory way

In our sentence, ‘well’ is acting as an adverb to go with the verb ‘performing’. You could replace it with ‘strongly’ or ‘efficiently’ if you wanted to use a different word and keep roughly the same meaning.

The confusion has risen because Word thinks ‘well’ is an adjective in this case. It wants us to change the word ‘well’ to ‘good’, because it thinks we’re talking about well students rather than performing well. It’s a mix-up that you would think only a computer could make!

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Most sentences that start with the word ‘should’ are questions, like ‘should I stay or should I go?’ or ‘should we follow every suggestion Microsoft Word makes?’ However, ‘should’ can also mean ‘in the event that’, and this would make it not a question, but an instruction. In the above example, Word is clearly wrong in thinking the sentence needs a question mark at the end.

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This is taken from a recent article written by our Technical Director, Darren. Unlike with the previous two, I don’t even understand how Word has come to the conclusion that we need to replace ‘their’ with ‘them’ in the sentence, although I have noticed that it’s happy for us to tag the word ‘either’ onto the end and keep the rest of the sentence the same.

These three instances are a reminder that spellchecks are used to give suggestions as to how to improve your writing, but if you follow them blindly, you’ll end up with some real oddities on your page. That’s why it remains as important as ever for companies who produce content to have human employees with a head for good spelling, grammar and sentence structure.

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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