Snares of relying on spell checkers

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I recently read an interesting biography printed in the UK in 1987 which used the place name Johannesburg in one part of the text and “Johannesberg” in another. These days a spell checker would flag the incorrect spelling. (By the way, the Dictionary of Southern African Place Names refers to a burg as being a castle, (hence) town in German while a berg is a mountain.)

Spell-check apps are useful in catching spelling errors but not so with homonyms. A homonym is one of two or more words that are spelled and pronounced the same but differ in meaning. gives the example of the word “pen.” This can mean both “a holding area for animals” and “a writing instrument.” Another example is “book,” which can mean “something to read” or “the act of making a reservation.”

Homophones can trip up spell checkers too. A homophone is one of two or more words that are pronounced the same, but differ in meaning, derivation, or spelling. Examples include to, too, two; great, grate; and bore, boar; write, right, rite; their/there; and no/know.

Mistakes like this can occur: “My dentist gave me medicine to lesson the pain of my aching tooth.”

Here the confusion is between lessen and lesson – Lessen (verb) is to reduce in number, size, or degree, while lesson (noun) is a reading or exercise to be studied by a student.

A homograph is one of two or more words that are spelled alike, but differ in meaning, and derivation. They may or may not have the same pronunciation. Examples include the bow of a ship, bow and arrow and the verb to object and the noun object.

I’ve read through up to ten drafts of manuscripts and still have found mistakes — despite using several spell checkers. Reading a hard copy of the document can help you catch mistakes you miss on the screen.

Proofreading can be hard work but it helps prevent your message being lost or misunderstood.

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