Why You Can’t Count on Spellchecker

No doubt about it – English is a difficult language, especially when it comes to spelling.

I admire those who learn English as a second language – especially those who speak in languages like Spanish, where the pronunciation of vowels and consonants is consistent. No rhyming ways and neighs in their native tongue!

Those inconsistencies in English are one reason you can’t rely on a spellchecker, especially when it comes to homonyms – words that sound alike but mean different things. closest friends

Misused words – words Spellchecker doesn’t catch – can embarrass an otherwise knowledgeable  and proficient writer. Just one mistake – especially if it conjures up a comical picture – can be the only thing a reader remembers about your article.

A Matter of Trust

If the writer hasn’t paid attention to a simple detail like spelling, what else does he have wrong? Misused or misspelled words detract from your message.

Below are a few errors I caught recently while copy editing magazine articles. Some I saw for the first time; others seem to be frequent mistakes. I’ve changed the context.

duel and dual.

“I received a duel Master of Arts degree in English and music.”

Funny enough, both words involve two: A duel is between two opponents; dual indicates double.

reign and rein. I saw this confusion twice in as many days: one in an e-mail I received from a writer, the other a comment from a writer on a writer’s blog.

“Shorten your to-do list. Reign in your promises.” And the other: “Now either move aside and give me the reigns or get the job done yourself.”

I understand the confusion – both reigns and reins indicate control. But the first has to do with power over subjects in a kingdom. The other is the means by which you control a horse – or your promises.

loose and lose.

Be sure to renew your subscription. We don’t want to loose you!

Though they aren’t even pronounced the same – and are different parts of speech – I see this one often. And why not? Shouldn’t loose rhyme with choose? And lose with close?

Loose: adjective meaning free from anything that binds or restrains. Lose: verb meaning to suffer the deprivation of, with a vowel sound of oo, but the s pronounced like a z.

pallet and palate. What do you think? Does the following refer to breakfast in bed?

This zesty sauce provides the pallet with the distinct taste of lemon and pepper.”

pallet: A bed or mattress of straw; or a small, low portable platform. palate: the sense of taste

scared and sacred. This is simply a typo – but with all those low, round letters in the middle of the word, not always easy to spot.

“Their repertoire includes both scared and patriotic songs.”

site and sight.

“Even though they were in Colorado, there were no mountains in site.”’

Another common confusion. Sometimes I have to stop and think about this one. After all, a site (plot of ground) can be in sight (one’s range of vision).

closet and closest. What a difference an s makes! Again, a simple typo – but your spellchecker is not going to save you from this embarrassment.

They took a road trip with 20 of their closet friends.

So how can you prevent these mistakes?

  1. Read your piece slowly out loud. With the help of your ear, reading out loud helps you correct simple typos and notice skipped words that your brain supplies even when they’re not there.
  2. When you have even the slightest doubt, look it up. Dictionary.com adds a “Can be confused” note below definitions.
  3. Ask a friend or colleague who has copy editing skills to look over your piece. A good copy editor will catch those misused words – and other oversights, too, such as web links that lead to nowhere, inconsistent spelling of proper names, and skipped words.

One job of a copy editor is to make writers look good. A second job is to make sure your message is as clear as possible. Correcting misused words helps to accomplish both purposes.

What are some words you see misused?

Cheryl Bryan

About Cheryl Bryan

Cheryl has years of experience in the business world, in a variety of fields: staffing, insurance, construction, and advertising, to name a few. She has freelanced since 1990. Friends and colleagues describe her as genuine, thoughtful, gracious, organized, easy-going, compassionate, a "thinker as well as a doer," and one who not only gets the job done but does it well. Born in rural Nebraska, she is back now after living in California, Texas, South Africa, Illinois, Tennessee, and Mississippi and traveling in Europe, South Africa, and Thailand.
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