Beware of Spell Check

Spell check is the devil's work. Like many things that sow hatred and destruction in their wake, it was created with the finest intentions: some well-meaning software engineer wanted to alert writers to spelling errors in a document. Once spell check became an integral part of word-processing programs, people began speeding through their compositions without a second glance, trusting it to catch any errors. It didn't. Whether "illicit" in place of "elicit," or "two" instead of "too," the software failed to nab correctly spelled words used in error, much less any grammatical car-wrecks.

In order to deal with the latter problem, those kind engineers gave spell check a large and slightly slow-witted brother: grammar check. It proved equally fallible. Not only does grammar check fail to catch some ingrown sentences and phrases, it sometimes snatches the technically correct ones and refuses to let go, no matter how many times you click "Ignore." Now the two prowl the wilds of your document like a pair of evil moonshiners straight out of Deliverance, hollering at anything that looks funny and generally causing you at least one annoyance every fifteen minutes.

The intellectual distrusts the two brothers, and makes a point to reread important documents for errors, regardless of what spell check or grammar check think. The truly intellectual might turn off these features entirely, trusting that they know when to reach for the Webster's or Strunk & White. Spell check won't catch when you accidentally type, "We can do that shorty" instead of, "We can do that shortly," and thus won't save you when that e-mail's height-challenged and temperamental recipient starts plotting revenge.

Theory Into Practice

Here are a few traditional trouble spots for spell check and its idiot sibling:

Name Spellings: If documents are the grammatical equivalent of those spooky temples from the Indiana Jones movies, then proper name spellings are the treasure rooms where the fake floors collapse, tumbling you into a pit filled with unhygienic spikes and some very irate scorpions. Spell check is generally terrible with names that are either a) not famous or b) longer than one syllable. When confronted with a document filled with long and complicated names, such as the Moscow phone directory, it pays to check each one by eye. Then recheck it. Then check it again.

The Terrible Twos: I want those two, too. I want those too, two. Spell-check thinks both these sentences are sterling examples of the English language at its finest. Don't confuse "too" and "two."

They're, There, Their: This gruesome trio likes to slip past spell check under the cover of darkness, although grammar check sometimes highlights a sentence like, "There cars are on the road" as incorrect.

Contractions: It helps to keep your possessives and your contractions straight. "Its" and "it's" are a point of confusion for many, as is "who's" and "whose," and "you're" and "your." If it has an apostrophe, it's a contraction. Without one, it's a possessive--i.e, it belongs to someone.

Then and Than: Then he did this, because he'd rather do this than that. The latter compares two values; the first is a part of speech that signifies time moving along.

The Inevitable Footnote

Spell check is vital for many people who, for one reason or another, have trouble with certain words (your humble narrator among them). It wants to help you out: the problems only start when you use it as an excuse to avoid the necessary reread.

Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media.