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’ ( 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.


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]

Glossary of proofreading terms

Linefeeds, widows and en dashes – ever wondered what your proofreader is trying to tell you? Proofreading terms can be puzzling if you don’t know what they mean. Here are the basic terms explained.

Thicker style of > type. The individual headings in this glossary are written in bold letters.

The word “September” starts with a capital letter. Writing something “in capitals” means spelling it out in big, capital letters: LIKE THAT.

To write or print in > capital letters or to begin a word with a capital letter.

Closed up
Punctuation with no space on either side: 3–4 p.m. There is no space between the numbers and the dash.

Em dash
The really long dash. Longer than the > en dash. Always used > closed up, either as punctuation instead of commas or > parentheses (It was—all in all—a successful launch.) or to indicate interrupted speech (“What the—”, he gasped.).

En dash
The medium-length dash – used > closed up to form ranges (page 12–23) or relations (Paris–Dakar rally); used > spaced as punctuation instead of a colon, brackets or commas (It was – all in all – a successful launch).

Fixed space
Used to keep two words together that are separated by a space. Often used between numbers and units (50 mg) so that they don’t get separated by a line break.

Name of a > type with a specific design; also called > typeface. “Times New Roman” or “Arial” are examples of different fonts.

Hard return
Key on the computer keyboard that starts a new line (the “Enter”or “Return” key); also called a > linefeed.

House style
Company-specific guidelines for spelling, terminology, hyphenation etc. Often collated in a > style sheet for copywriters and proofreaders to maintain a consistent style in all written texts.

The shortest dash. Can be used to form compound words, e.g. short-term, wide-ranging, pick-me-up (hard hyphen). Also indicates the division of a word at the end of a line (soft hyphen). Contrary to popular belief, the hyphen is not to be used as punctuation (use the > en dash or > em dash instead).

When a line or a block of text is set further away from the margin than the main text, it is indented.

> Type that slopes to the right. If you really want to stress something, you could write the word in italic script for emphasis. The links in this glossary are written in italic.

A text is justified if the margins on both sides are even. All full lines have the same length. Often found in newspaper columns and printed text because it looks neat.

Two or more letters joined together to form a single character, e.g. æ, ff, fi, ffl. Perhaps a bit old-fashioned these days, but some > types still use them to look pretty.

Starting a new line by hitting the “Return” (or “Enter”) key; distance between two lines of text, also called line spacing.

Lower case
Lower-case letters are letters that are not > capitalized. All of the words in the previous sentence are lower case, except for the word “Lower”, which starts with an upper-case letter “L”.

The first line of a new paragraph at the foot of a page. Should ideally be moved to the next page to join the rest of the paragraph it belongs to.

Pair of round brackets (such as these).

Parenthesis (plural: parentheses)
Word or phrase inserted into a sentence as an addition, usually marked by brackets, dashes or commas on either side: Nobody, not even the owner, expected this horse to win.

The regular upright > type or font style (such as this one) that texts are usually written in, as opposed to the > bold or > italic type.

Run on
Continuation; connecting two lines or paragraphs that had been separated before, for example if a sentence had been split unintentionally by a > hard return.

With a space on either side. Some punctuation is used with a space on either side – such as this en dash.

Latin for “let it stand”. Usually marked in form of a few dots underneath a correction made in error. Means to leave the text as it is. Not so much used anymore in digital proofreading, where you can simply delete a correction if it is wrong.

Style sheet
List of instructions about grammar or spelling preferences and other style-related matters, for example with regard to hyphenation, capitalization or word endings such as -ise or -ize.

Take back and take over
To correct a bad word break such as “leg- end”, you can either take back the second part to keep the entire word in the first line or take over the first part and move it to the next line.

If you swap around words or letters that are in the wrong order, you transpose them. In this exmaple, you need to transpose the letters m and a to form the word “example”.

Another word for character or letter. Originally a printing term for a piece of metal with a raised letter or character (which you can also find on an old typewriter).

Name of a > type with a specific design; also called > font. “Times New Roman” or “Arial” are examples of different typefaces.

The margin on the left side of the text is even (aligned) and the margin on the right is uneven (ragged). The lines have different lengths, but the spaces between the words are all the same size. Usually used for online texts (such as this one) and emails, as it is easier to read on screen.

Upper case
See > lower case.

A short last line of a paragraph (just a few words) spilling over to the top of the next page. Should be tucked under the paragraph it belongs to, if possible.

Are there any other proofreading terms you are not sure about? Let me know! I will try and answer them.

Five myths about proofreading – busted!

Have you ever wondered if you should ask a proofreader for help and then run a spellchecker instead, thinking: same difference? Proofreading is often perceived as something old-fashioned that has been replaced by technology or as a necessary evil for people who write books on typewriters. Here are a few common misconceptions explained.

1. I don’t need proofreading, I use a spellchecker.
Using a spellchecker is recommendable and a good starting point. It finds a lot of misspelled words and even some grammatical errors. However, it does not spot words that are spelled correctly but not intended: ‘form’ instead of ‘from’, ‘grain’ instead of ‘brain’, ‘men’ instead of ‘man’, etc.

2. Anyone can proofread. I always let my colleague/friend proofread my texts.
It is good to let someone else proofread your text. Proofreading your own text is difficult, because our brain tends to auto-correct mistakes as we read our own words, because it knows what should be there. However, there are plenty of terms, spellings and rules in the English language that many people are unsure about: is it ‘accept’ or ‘except’, ‘its’ or ‘it’s’, ‘affect’ or ‘effect’? Professional proofreaders may not know every single term by heart, but they know when to check (and where) and are trained to see what is actually there.

3. Proofreading is not that important.
Not everything needs to be proofread. No one in their right mind will disregard a personal letter from a friend just because of a spelling mistake. However, if you have created a text with the intent to achieve something with it (e.g. to get people to buy your product or service or to read what you have to say), consider it as a job application: you want to make the best possible impression in order to get the desired attention. The trouble is that all your efforts could be destroyed if the text is riddled with mistakes or if one big blunder slipped in which spoils the impression and distracts from the content. Imagine a website that promotes public services but one crucial letter in the word ‘public’ is missing. I have seen it. It might not be taken quite so seriously.

4. Professional proofreading is expensive.
Have you ever asked for a quote to get a text proofread? Then perhaps you were surprised by how reasonable prices for proofreading generally are. Proofreading is usually charged per hour or per standard page, and fees are often more affordable than you think. Is it worth it for some peace of mind? You decide.

5. Proofreading takes too much time.
It is true: you cannot rush proofreading because it requires reading slowly in order to spot errors and inconsistencies. Having said that, an experienced proofreader can check around four standard pages (1000 words) an hour, depending on subject and condition of the text. If you have a text of around 500 words (such as this one) that you want proofread before sending it out, you will usually get it back swiftly.

So there we have it: spellchecker and proofreader – not quite the same thing, but very useful in conjunction to help make your text stand out for all the right reasons.

Check out the proofreading services at ablewords.

Good for the senses

If you are working indoors all day, perhaps you are looking for a way to balance your work life with a bit of outdoor life as well. As a translator and proofreader I spend most of my days sitting at my desk in front of a computer screen. Especially in the winter, when the days are short, I don’t get out much. So I was yearning for some fresh air and exercise as well as keen to volunteer for the Essex Wildlife Trust when I joined their work party at my local nature reserve last December.

As soon as we enter the woods on a gloomy Saturday afternoon, my hibernating senses come back to life. There is the earthy smell of wood, fungi and rotting leaves. The cold winter air, combined with physical exercise as we clip and clear away shrubs and build a natural hedge, soon colours our cheeks red. The sight of a heron flying overhead makes us stop for a chat. We can hear a great spotted woodpecker heckling noisily from a nearby tree. After a few hours of work in the cold, a hot cup of tea and a piece of cake taste like heaven.

Nothing beats the company of like-minded people. I have learned so much about the local flora and fauna on these afternoons on the reserve. Did you know there is a fungus that grows on dead ash trees and can be used to make fire (King Alfred’s Cake)? Or that the plants of the Euphorbia genus have a milky sap that can leave you blind if you accidentally rub it into your eyes? Or that there are barn owls nesting in the big tree with the fire damage near the footbridge by the river?

It also is immensely satisfying when you see the result of a few hours labour right in front of you. Unlike the achievement of business targets, measured over weeks or months, working on the reserve gives you an instant gratification. For me this is a winning combination: apart from giving you a reason to go out in winter and a free workout, you get to hone your gardening skills, work with great tools, learn about the environment and are instantly rewarded for your efforts. Oh, and you can watch a couple of robins negotiating their territories while you are at it. It simply is a lovely way to spend an afternoon, good for the soul and for the senses. I, for one, already look forward to next winter.

Check out your local Wildlife Trust for opportunities to volunteer.