Garbage In, Garbage Out: Errors Caused by Over-Reliance on Spelling Checkers


By Sean Igo

The venerable computer science axiom “Garbage in, Garbage out” usually brings to mind ancient, chattering machines filling entire buildings and requiring an army of lab-coated caretakers. However, it is still accurate; all we’ve done in the past fifty years is to improve the speed at which errors are compounded.


In the arena of English errors, the GIGO process is perpetrated by spelling checkers. More accurately, it’s perpetrated by the users of spelling checkers, who apply them to source material beyond the program’s ability to help. The results vary according to the quality of the spell checking program.


Remember, a spelling checker only works if the source word it is given is already close to the intended word. For instance, my spell checker will easily catch and correct “definately,” returning the correct result. If, however, the word supplied is “definantly,” a common Web word-mangling, the only word the spell checker can suggest is “defiantly.” Hence the occasional assertion of the form “Lincoln is defiantly the best president America ever had.”


Further, spell checkers won’t recognize a misused word that is spelled correctly, e.g. “effect” used where “affect” is appropriate. Nor will they find errors related to specialized words not included in their lexicon.


Spelling checkers are wonderful tools. Just remember that as a hammer may mash your thumb, a spell checker may mash your words. The only certain way to be correct is to know what you’re saying.


Here are some sample triplets of real words matched with the original misspelling and the second-generation misspelling generated by machine:


Right Wrong Spell checker
definitely definantly defiantly
a lot alot allot
infinitely infinitly infinity
espresso expresso express
reinsurance reinsance renaissance
sponsor sponcer spencer, sponger, spanker (no sensible results)
surprised surpised surpassed

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