How foolproof is your spellchecker?

Using a spellchecker is a convenient way to quickly check and correct errors in a text. Running it over your email before you send it or over your blog post before you publish it is highly recommendable. But does it find all the mistakes?

A spellchecker is ‘a computer program which checks the spelling of words in files of text, typically by comparison with a stored list of words’ (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/spellchecker). And therein lies the weak spot: it checks against a list of words. So what about words that are on that list and spelled correctly – but not where you want them? Have a look at the following ten examples that would pass a spellchecker with flying colours. Can you spot the error in each of them?

Have a go – beat the spellchecker!

1. Could you send me the text in an edible format?
2. During a conversion between three or more people, one person often unwittingly takes on the role of the moderator.
3. After giving birth, all he wanted was to hold her baby in her arms.
4. We are happy to except your offer and look forward to working with you.
5. It was all – in all – a successful launch.
6. ‘Let’s eat nan,’ she said, and sat down at the table.
7. The company is implementing the changes across all sectors and it’s ever expanding network of suppliers.
8. A fixed space can be used to keep two words together that is separated by a space.
9. Do something great – everyday!
10. By spotting only one the ten errors, you have already beaten the spellchecker.

You can find the answers at the bottom of this post.

A spellchecker is not a proofreader

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with a spellchecker. After all, it is supposed to check your spelling, so you would think that it will find any mistake. But as you can see in these examples, a spellchecker cannot find the error if the spelling of the word in the text matches the spelling of the word on its list. It cannot tell if a word is missing or in the wrong place. No wonder – it is only a program and cannot read and understand the text as such.

Human proofreaders, on the other hand, not only check spelling and grammar, they also read the text for sense. They don’t just look at the individual words but at the whole picture. This is why a trained proofreader can spot correctly spelled words in the wrong context and other inconsistencies. So if you really want to be on the safe side, don’t just rely on a spellchecker – run it past a proofreader as well.

Answers

1. editable [not: edible]
2. conversation [not: conversion]
3. all she wanted [not: he]
4. accept [not: except]
5. – all in all – [not: all – in all –]
6. ‘Let’s eat, nan,’ [not: ‘Let’s eat nan,’]
7. its [not: it’s]
8. that are [not: that is]
9. every day [not: everyday]
10. one of the [not: one the]

Detective work: Six proofreading secrets

You may be forgiven for thinking that proofreading is something anyone with a decent knowledge of grammar and spelling can do. After all, it is just about finding mistakes and adding or deleting the odd comma, isn’t it?

I have been proofreading since I was at university, a lifetime ago. I always had a good grasp of language and would find mistakes that other people had missed. It came naturally to me, and I was confident that I would spot all there was to spot. It wasn’t until I completed my formal training in proofreading that I realised how much more there is to it.

Of course there is the spelling and the grammar – and along came the realisation that I had to look up and double-check more words and rules than I thought I would. It also turned out that my first instinct wasn’t always right. Then there is the issue of consistency: what if a word can be spelled in different ways and they all appear in one text? Do I choose the one I like best? What about hyphenation and quotation marks, font types and sizes, layout and spaces? Do I have to check all of that too? Not to mention the important matter of putting your own personal style aside and not to confuse proofreading with editing (you can read more on that subject here). In short: the list was long, and my eyes were opened.

As a proofreader you take care of the whole text, correct factual errors where they occur, ensure consistency in line with the preferred style of the author and check if the text makes sense, taking the target readership into account. Often this requires more than one proof run and quite some detective work, as you have to check each and every aspect carefully not to miss anything. On top of that, you need to be able to follow a client’s brief, work with a style sheet or produce one yourself, give clear and concise instructions and justify your decisions.

To give you an insight into how a proofreader works and some tips how you can improve your own proofreading skills, I will let you in on six proofreading secrets:

1. Check layout and numbers first
Before you start correcting, have a look at the overall layout and structure of the text. Inconsistencies in font types and sizes, numbering or alignment are easier to spot when the text is still untouched. The same goes for missing or redundant spaces.

2. Run a spellchecker – but don’t rely on it
It doesn’t hurt to run a spellchecker if you are working on a digital document, but be aware that it will not find every error. Words that are spelled correctly will not be flagged, even if they are not intended, for example: ‘then’ instead of ‘when’, ‘for’ instead of ‘four’, ‘claws’ instead of ‘flaws’. I recently proofread a text where no errors were found by the spellchecker. After I had finished proofreading, I realised that I had to make more than 100 changes (deletions and insertions). This illustrates the limits of a spellchecker: it can be used in addition to but not as a replacement for proofreading.

3. Use a rule
Place a rule under the line that you are reading. It helps to focus on the words that are in front of you and keeps your eyes from skipping to other lines. This is simple but very effective.

4. Slow down
When we are reading for pleasure and at our normal speed, our brain tends to auto-correct mistakes as we read. This is why you need to slow down and read every single word when you are proofreading a text. In order to spot mistakes, you need to concentrate on what is actually there without being tempted to read what should be there. It also helps to read aloud and spell out what is written syllable by syllable. Some people even read a text backwards to focus on every single word.

5. Watch out for inconsistencies
When you come across words that can be spelled in two different ways and both spellings appear in the same document, you need to find out which one is used more often than the other and correct accordingly. The same approach applies to hyphenation – there are few set rules, and often it is a matter of making sure that the prevailing style is used consistently.

6. Read again for sense
After you have proofread a paragraph for errors, read it again to check if it makes sense. You may stumble upon conflicting messages or components of a sentence that don’t go together. If something is unclear or ambiguous, you may need to query it with the author (or indeed yourself, if that’s you).

This is just a glimpse into the world of a proofreader, but I hope it has given you a more detailed idea of what proofreading entails as well as some handy tips for your own use.

Proofreading does – and therefore requires – a lot more than meets the eye. Some of it may come naturally (a good grasp of grammar and spelling), but a lot of it takes formal training and practice (eye for the detail, in-depth knowledge and good judgement). What I enjoy most about proofreading is that you never stop learning: not only do you get to read about different subjects while you are at it, you also encounter new challenges waiting to be solved. It often feels like detective work, and if you fancy yourself to be a bit of a Sherlock, you are in for a thrill.

Find out more about the proofreading services at ablewords.