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Language Arts

Spell Checking

Spell checking any document is important. Spell checkers often do not do an optimal job out-of-the-box, but can be adapted to your needs. Keep reading to understand what your spell checker can and cannot do to help you with misspellings.

Basic Operation

The usual operation of a spell checker can be set up two ways: it can check all the time, while you’re typing, or just when you tell it to. While autocorrect will clean up after you as your cursor moves across the page, spell check will provide you with choices when it comes across a word that doesn’t register. The fact that there is user choice involved means that there is still the possibility of error. If you type pumpken and you’re offered a choice of



pump ken

you will still have an error if you make an incorrect choice - it will just be a different error.

Keep in mind that the spell checker may, under certain circumstances, recognize that a word is misspelled, but not have the word you want listed and so be unable to offer it to you. In that case you can add it for the nonce or add it to the dictionary.

Also, the spell checker may tag a word as being possibly incorrect not because the word is wrong but because it isn’t in the dictionary. In this case, the choice to “Ignore All” or adding to the dictionary are useful options, depending on the circumstances.

Do You Want Grammar With That?

Why should you want to turn on the grammar checker when you want to check your spelling? For the good and sufficient reason that your spell checker can only find entities that are not words, but misspellings of homophones - for example, confusion between too, to, two; their, there, they’re; your, you’re, yore; or its, it’s - will not be found by the spell checker but may possibly (it’s not guaranteed) be found by the grammar checker, because some of them are different parts of speech and therefore not grammatically interchangeable.

Also, did you know that in Microsoft Word, you can test the readability of your prose? In Preferences for Spelling and Grammar, under Grammar put a check in the box next to “Show Readability Statistics,” and when the grammar (or grammar and spelling) check is over, you will get to view statistics that can help you determine if the level of your prose is on target. 

The readability will tell you totals for words, characters, paragraphs, and sentences, as well as sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and characters per words, and the percentage of passive constructions. Depending on your subject matter and the context, this feature may not be of much use, but sometimes it can provide useful information about how your prose is working.

Adding to the Permanent Dictionary

Is your surname Kosciusko?  Then with Microsoft Word you’re set, because it’s already in the default dictionary. If your surname is Hovencamp, however, or Zehle, you may save yourself a lot of skipping over in the course of the next few years if you take a moment and add it to your main dictionary. The same goes for other words that you will frequently type, including addresses, relatives, company and product names, etc.

Making a Specialized Dictionary When Necessary

Suppose that for the next two weeks you need to write about one of the following: species of snails; Dostoevsky’s use of names; the geography of Finland; the latest artificial heart.  In any of these cases, you will suddenly - and for a limited time - need to be absolutely accurate with the spelling of many words that a) will not be in your spell checker and b) that you may never use again or not need for a good long while, if ever. It may, in this case, be worth your while to set up a secondary dictionary for this specialized material.

Having a secondary dictionary for only these specialized words means that you can see the extent of the dictionary entries more easily (it won’t have correct spellings for everyday words in it), and you can set it up for the language that is required for your specialized topic, if it is different than the language of the rest of the article. It also means that you can choose when to run it, so you when you’re not writing about that topic, you won’t see those words as alternatives to your typos of ordinary words.


You will get the best use of your spell check if you do the following:

  • Use Spell Check in tandem with autocorrect (see the article “Misspelling and How To Improve” for more hints about the autocorrect function).
  • Use Spell Check in tandem with Grammar Check, taking advantage of extra features such as “Show Readability Statistics” when appropriate.
  • Add frequently used words to the dictionary.
  • Create special dictionaries for specialized projects.
  • Make sure that errors don’t creep in as you make choices from the Spell Checker’s suggestions.
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