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Writing Without Stabilisers.

Posted September 19th, 2011 at 01:47 PM by ollie
This post is a follow up to some discussion in the comments to my last blog post, A Neg Rep Rampage. I've made similar points elsewhere I'm sure, but a blog rant seemed like a good idea. You might disagree.

The subject is automatic spelling checker programs, the ones that give you red wiggly lines or whatever to tell you that something is up as you are typing.

Short version: I don't like them.

Long version...

At best, I see this sort of assistance as akin to stabilisers on a bike. Great to get you started and give you a feel for what cycling/writing is like, but not something to keep on indefinitely. If you have a prompt that tells you each time you do something wrong (probably, more on this below), how are you going to learn to write well yourself?

This is not to say that you should not scrutinise your writing for errors. Quite the opposite. My theory is that by relying on someone (or something) else to make that first call about whether something needs consideration means that you never develop that skill of deciding to look further into something. In easy reach of my desk I have a dictionary, a grammar book and a reprint of Fowler's Modern English Usage from, I think, 1930. The last is more for entertainment---does anyone agree with Fowler that doctress is the correct way to refer to a female doctor? I'm not at my desk now, but I have a similar set of resources bookmarked in my web browser. Whenever I'm not entirely sure of a spelling or a construction, I look it up.

This is a much more interesting and enlightening way to correct errors and leads, I think, to it being less likely that you'll make the same errors again and again. It'll also make it more likely that you'll get it correct when the spelling checker or other resources are not handy.

For example, when writing the above, I went online to check that the American English for the British "stabilisers" is "stabilizers". (I've decided to stick to British English wherever I can; many Americanisms feel wrong to me, especially (to use two examples from the first sentence of this paragraph) ending -ise words with -ize, which I find looks harsh and almost brutal, and putting punctuation inside quotation marks, which is plain illogical.) I found out that the American is, in fact, "training wheels". So I can now add this parenthetical remark so that everyone knows what I'm talking about. Spelling checking programs would not have helped with this, or at least not easily.)

Of course, then there are the standard problems that these programs cannot help you with weather/whether, your/you're, complement/compliment, uninterested/disinterested,... or tell you that "verse" is not a verb that means to play a game against.

So, I'm curious. How many people use spelling checkers in most of what they write? All of what they write of any length? Given that I accept that these programs have a possible use as you grow into writing, are there other arguments for them that I'm missing?
Total Comments 38


ZBeeblebrox's Avatar
I am a horrible speller, especially of big words within my vocabulary...so I tend to implement spell checkers all the time.
Posted September 19th, 2011 at 04:25 PM by ZBeeblebrox ZBeeblebrox is offline
dok's Avatar
The short answer is that I disagree that spell checks are a bad thing, if the goal is to learn to spell correctly without them.

Slightly longer version: If you want to learn a skill efficiently, you need lots of feedback. Spell checkers give you lots of feedback, so they help you learn spelling.

If I'm continually seeing the same word get the red underline, right-clicking on that word, scrolling down to the proper spelling, and correcting it, then I will quickly learn that I am not spelling it right. To me, the process I described above is enough of an annoyance to bring the error to my attention and cause me to learn the proper spelling.

Now, the same cannot be said for autocorrect - that heinous feature where certain common misspellings are corrected by the word processor the moment you hit the space bar. If you learn to write using programs that have these sorts of features, that can definitely impede your ability to learn things correctly.

To me, autocorrect is the proper analogy to training wheels, because both allow you to make the mistake without providing any feedback that you did so. Spellcheckers are like a balance bicycle - they give you an easy way to achieve "success", thereby allowing you to learn by doing. (And Noah loves his strider bike.)

putting punctuation inside quotation marks, which is plain illogical
I gotta agree with you here; I have a strong tendency to stick to the British approach here, which is, as you say, logical.
Posted September 19th, 2011 at 04:27 PM by dok dok is offline
MegaSilver's Avatar
Speaking of autocorrect:

In a recent paper I was typing, I typed the sentence: "What is your favorite color?"

My computer promptly corrected me to say: "What is not your favorite color?" and still tries to tell me my first sentence is wrong.
Posted September 19th, 2011 at 09:05 PM by MegaSilver MegaSilver is online now
Tornado's Avatar
I am going to have to agree with dok here, although I applaud your old school approach ollie. I consider myself a pretty good speller and I like having something that points out my ignorance/arrogance. I also think that spell check is nice for people with dyslexia. It is hard to know something is wrong when it looks right to you.
I do think texting and twitter is contributing to the erosion of grammar and your efforts are a valiant effort to keep this wonderful site free of such taint.
Please tell me you mark every word you look up in the dictionary.
~ Tornado imagining ollie's worn out well marked dictionary.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 12:29 AM by Tornado Tornado is offline
British vs American English.

"What is your favorite color?"
"What is your favourite colour?"

The problem with English is that it changes (especially on the internet) depending on where you live.

I had one editor tell me that my spelling is "unique" when I draft something out. He also told me not to worry about it since the idea is more important than the written word. It's up to the editor to correct grammer and spelling.

These days the editor just happens to be a spell check program so I have no issue with people using it.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 10:12 AM by AMIS AMIS is offline
Updated September 20th, 2011 at 10:14 AM by AMIS (What happened to "u" in the move to the new world?)
MegaSilver's Avatar
AMIS: The early Americans intentially changed the spelling of words, such as dropping the "u", replacing "s" with "z", and the like to make a point that they were "different" from the British. It started shortly before or after the Revolutionary War.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 11:57 AM by MegaSilver MegaSilver is online now
Updated September 20th, 2011 at 06:45 PM by MegaSilver (In a blog about spelling, of course I will mispell. ;))
kolakoski's Avatar
Well met!

Even if you are already a proficient speller, typos still happen, and spell check is the quickest way to correct them. The real problem, here and at the law firm where I work, is that that those who need spell check the worst are the least likely to use it.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 01:00 PM by kolakoski kolakoski is offline
Sylvano the Wasabus's Avatar
I customize the spell checker to Canadian English. We have a lot of extra u's, as well as a bunch of French words and I also have a bad habit of, well, making words up.

I'll use those red wigglies to highlight questionable words and then I shift through them individually, one at at time.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 02:53 PM by Sylvano the Wasabus Sylvano the Wasabus is offline
ollie's Avatar
Thanks all---great responses.

First up, I'm going to disagree slightly with Dok, or at least the emphasis that he gives. I don't think the goal is to learn to spell well, it is to learn to write well.

Spelling checker programs, I contend, reduce language to a set of valid and invalid strings of letters, or at least flag this aspect of language up as being important. I'd say that it's simply the easiest piece of language for computers to check. (How cool would it be to have a "style check" program that would flick your writing back and forth between Hemingway, Wodehouse, Morrison, Austen, cyberpunk, chicklit,...?)

One symptom of this is the name "spell check" by which people refer to them. I can't be the only one that thinks that is not the form of either (or at least one) of the two words that is most appropriate. Can I? Am I right that it came about via a proprietary program with the name? Every time I see it referred to as such it reminds me that it puts spelling above writing.

There's a positive side to my argument too. I'm not just saying that spelling checkers dull your soul (though I am saying that ) but that chasing through dictionaries and grammar books enriches your soul, or at least improves your appreciation of language and hence your writing. And it's fun.

I should also add that I'm not claiming that you can't both use a spelling checker and be an excellent writer. Defending them and/or saying they use them in this thread we have what are, in my opinion, some of the best writers on the board, whether measured in terms of clarity, accuracy or that elusive one style. I'm not going to say who's who (or even who's whom); take any compliment you feel you deserve!

Autocorrect? Urgh. I did not know such things existed. I think for me this is one of those moments when you discover the world is even worse than you imagined it could be. Right up (down?) there with learning of the existence of Cheese in a Can or the Tea Party. Please tell me that the packages that include this "feature" let you turn it off (and that you all do).

To gradate things a little further, there are two ways (at least?) to use a spelling check program that I think are very different. My ire is aimed at the as-you-go haranguing with wiggly-lines. An alternative (and if I'm persuading anyone at all to think about ditching them, maybe consider this a first step) is to only use it once you have a final draft of what you've written. That is, use your gut to tell you when to check something out while writing (checking unless you're 95% sure, say) and then run the program on the completed item.

I used them like this briefly on important documents before giving them up entirely about a decade ago. I might have kept it up, but the nature of what constituted an important document then stymied the programs, partly because there were technical math words it didn't understand but mainly because I was using (and still use) LaTeX, a mathematical typesetting package that means I write in plaintext with 90% words and 10% commands; the commands, especially when self-defined short-cuts, tend to trip the spelling checkers up. I'm sure there is better support now, but I'm not really tempted to go back.

Tornado, unfortunately one of the many other things I feel strongly about (who needs a psychotherapist when you have a blog on Heroscapers?) is marking books, specifically that it is A Bad Thing. So no, my dictionary is unmarked but certainly well-worn.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 10:17 PM by ollie ollie is offline
ZBeeblebrox's Avatar
Ollie, there is a difference of using a spell checker and using a dictionary. I use a spell checker because its easier than pulling out the dictionary to spell words I know how to use correctly...but my ineptitude at spelling causes me to incorrectly spell a word.

On the other hand, my dictionary is very well worn, because if I run across a word I do not know when I'm reading a novel, article, or whatever...I immediately look up the word so I understand its context and use.

So Ollie; I disagree with your assessment of Spell checkers..for some people like myself who just cannot remember how to spell the lexicon that is part of their vocabulary. For some, it does not make one lazy, just efficient, because the spell checker saves time.
Posted September 20th, 2011 at 11:12 PM by ZBeeblebrox ZBeeblebrox is offline
dok's Avatar
Originally Posted by ollie
Please tell me that the packages that include this "feature" let you turn it off (and that you all do).
Yes they do, and I typically turn off nearly all of them. I'll admit that I will occasionally countenance a few of the autocorrects, like turning "teh" into "the", but often I just turn off the entire feature in one stroke.

I actually find that I spend a fair amount of time looking things up in dictionaries when I write. Not because I need the spelling, but because I want to make sure that I'm using the words properly. I often find myself going to the dictionary to answer things like, "Is countenance really the right verb there?"
Posted September 21st, 2011 at 12:04 AM by dok dok is offline
flameslayer93's Avatar
I like my spell checker(not an auto correct program), it helps me find those blasted typos especially because I do have a problem seeing them on my own. Otherwise, I can spell just fine.

(J-U-S-T F-I-N-E)

Without my spell checker, I would likely be going back to all of my posts 5 or 6 times to edit out the typos.
Posted September 21st, 2011 at 03:47 AM by flameslayer93 flameslayer93 is offline
Updated September 21st, 2011 at 03:47 AM by flameslayer93 (It's all about the typos, baby...)
Tornado's Avatar
Ugg. I just somehow deleted my whole post, great. I will attempt to re-write it.
The main thing that I end up using spell check for is words that I continue to spell wrong even though I use them frequently. Familiar is one and the only word I misspelled in the original post. I just spelled it wrong again. Weird.

I want to stress just re-reading your posts. I read mine multiple times before posting and then a couple more after posting. I regret some early posts and I have made an effort to take a better approach. I do find it helpful to type out my initial reaction before spinning it in a nicer style/tone.

I agree with you ollie about not marking up books. When I read your post I thought about a scene from the movie "Say Anything". I guess I just was hoping for life to imitate film for some reason.

Here is a tip from AMIS I came across in the Fan-Fic contest thread.
"Checking your own work is always the best way to learn but, here's an old hint, read the last sentence first and go backwards through the story. That way you're concentrating on spelling and grammar per sentence as opposed to getting caught up in what you write."

Oh, and a "style check" program would be totally amazing. Great idea. Stay cool ollie, I hope you are recovering nicely from the flood... peace
Posted September 21st, 2011 at 09:16 AM by Tornado Tornado is offline
nyys's Avatar
I'll certainly look up a word if I don't know it's meaning, but the spell checker I think is very useful, especially in a fast paced work environment.

When trying to get messages to the proper departments and time if of the essence, I don't have time to look things up. Though at the same time 95% of the 'misspellings' the spell checker picks up for me, are simply typos.

Autocorrect on the other hand drives me nuts.
Posted September 21st, 2011 at 09:47 AM by nyys nyys is offline
Filthy the Clown's Avatar
ph'nglui mglw'nafh Spell Checker R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn
Posted September 21st, 2011 at 02:33 PM by Filthy the Clown Filthy the Clown is offline
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