Spell Check Is Not Enough!

August 21, 2015

spell check

Technology is Making Us Stupid

I admit, I rely on technology just as heavily as anyone. Without GPS and navigation, I’d be a “lost” cause (and probably a missing person). I mean, I usually can’t even find my car in a parking lot. It’s a well-known joke among my friends and loved ones to never follow me anywhere because I will go the wrong way 90 percent of the time. I don’t hate technology, I just think it’s unraveling our society. Keep reading to find out what I mean. 

Anyone else who’s directionally challenged can probably understand this weakness of mine. I just don’t seem to have an internal compass. And though admittance is the first step to recovery (I thought using ‘awareness’ here would be too ironic, since I’m never ‘aware’ of the correct direction), I can read and use a map. I relied on state maps in 2008 when I took a 28-day cross country road trip (okay, okay, I had a GPS but it didn’t work in many of the rural and desert areas through which I traveled). The point here is that there’s a generation of children being raised without ever being taught how to use relics like maps, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and the like.

As this E! Online News article from November 2013 explains, “Common Core education standards dictate that cursive will no longer be taught in elementary schools.” I’m sure quite a bit has changed since 2013, and there are states pushing to keep handwriting in the curriculum. But it seems that proponents of old-school penmanship are outnumbered by those who believe that typing skills are more valuable to the future business leaders of America, and therein lies the rub: computer skills are valuable in this day and age because computers are omnipresent and basically rule the world. But does that really mean that basic reading, writing and arithmetic are becoming obsolete?

Technology is Meant to Enhance, Not Supersede

The answer is a big, resounding NO (in my humble opinion, anyway). This isn’t some alarmist “what if all of the world’s computers and technology-dependent systems fail tomorrow” piece, and I’m not going to pick on calculators and the internet for replacing long mathematics and encyclopedias. There are far too many developments in technology that have changed the landscape of education and thwarted human learning and intelligence to deliberate on them all.

But before I continue on to explain the plight of spell checking software, speech recognition technology, and how these “tools” are eroding human intelligence, let me just make known that I am not against technology. Out of mankind’s ingenuity countless lifesaving, efficiency-boosting and quality-of-life-improving technologies have emerged. I believe the danger (a very real one at that) is when we abandon everything we’ve learned and rely on these technologies to replace our innate capability to think analytically and pragmatically. 

We’re All Becoming Robots

Universities and corporations everywhere proclaim that ‘problem-solving skills’ are one of the most valuable characteristics candidates can possess. How sardonic, then, that the only way children are learning to solve problems now is with computers and calculators? If put to the test in a technology-free zone, how many students could still solve problems creatively, resourcefully, analytically, logically, or from memory and deduction?

I can’t claim to have learned everything I was taught in school to the best of my capacity, but I am pretty proud of what seems like an intrinsically large, deeply embedded lexicon and an almost instinctual command of it. I would say that reading, writing, spelling, and other linguistic abilities are my strongest skills. When I was growing up, hearing “sound it out” was common; being taught phonetically and visually were the most logical ways to learn. I remember having books read to me while studying each letter of every word on the page in front of me as the sound left my father’s lips, teachers writing on blackboards while I scrawled repetitions in my notebook, and memorizing spellings the same way we were taught to memorize multiplication tables. I was called “the walking, talking dictionary” by elementary school classmates because of having memorized the spelling of words longer than dictionary. Today many people stumble over the spelling of words with two syllables. 

I’m not here to brag or belittle anyone. You could say that I was predisposed to linguistic curiosity, as many children are born with a propensity toward a specific area of learning. However, if I had grown up with Kindles and Nooks instead of flashcards and books I can’t confidently say to you that my command of language would be as strong as it is today. Of course I also had amazing English teachers; the likes of which I’m almost positive are a rarity anymore. But regardless of a child’s predilection toward any one subject or the caliber of educators by whom they’re taught, much of the cultivation of learning has to start at home.

Allowing our children to grow up on autopilot and potentially never knowing how to spell or master grammar and syntax is a risk we can’t afford. Our future depends far more on the bona fide intelligence of the generations to come than on any technology we could develop as a substitute. There will continue to be changes to the education system relative to technology, just like there are changes in family values and the climate. But I can assure you that if the last library in your county closes its doors and Barnes & Noble goes out of business, your e-reading device will be a sorry stand-in (that can’t function without battery power or electricity) – much like Dragon Speech Recognition software, Microsoft Word, and auto-correct on smart phones will not ensure that your children actually know anything. They might be able to get a passing grade, but without the concrete knowledge it’s like using counterfeit money. Eventually, the charade will be over. 

Software Is Not Bulletproof

Wikipedia defines ‘software’ as “any set of machine-readable instructions that directs a computer’s processor to perform specific operations.” It’s no surprise, then, that a machine is not able to infer context and syntax like a human can. As intuitive as some technologies are becoming, there’s nothing like the real thing. I’m not sure if etymology is taught in schools anymore, but I’m almost one hundred percent sure an algorithm hasn’t been developed for popular software that will teach people why they made a mistake instead of just correcting it for them. Sure, if you type ‘must of’ into Microsoft Word, the software will instantly correct your error and change it to ‘must have.’ It happens so fast you might not even notice it, especially if you look down at your keyboard while you’re typing. 

But the squiggly red and green lines signaling spelling, grammar and punctuation errors actually do very little to facilitate understanding of why something is incorrect, tell you where a word came from and why it means something entirely different from its homonym, or explain why your arbitrarily prolific use of commas is actually not functional and quite confusing to the reader.

We’ve all right-clicked the green-lined item to see the dialogue box that says “fragment (consider revising).” As the user, do you jump for joy and express gratitude that the genius in your screen noticed that you typed a fragment sentence? No! Because if you knew how to write a properly constructed sentence which skillfully employed syntax, then you probably wouldn’t have used a fragment anyway! When you rely on a software aid to help you write something instead of only using it as an additional mistake-catching filter, you’re bound to end up more frustrated by its recommendations because you don’t understand how to fix all of the mistakes. And sometimes it recommends a change that would be incorrect when there’s nothing wrong with what you’ve typed! Again, it’s an imperfect filter, not the world’s smartest bullet-proof vest.

The biggest misconception about this kind of software, as genius as it is, is that it’s foolproof. While it might be smarter than some humans, this is generally not the case. For example, there are quite a few mistakes that word processing software just cannot catch, because they’re only mistakes in context. The software is programmed to screen for errors in spelling and basic grammar, but it cannot detect contextual inaccuracy.

Take ‘buses’ versus ‘busses.’ *Side note: I’m using Microsoft Word to type this very copy.* ‘Buses’ is a plural noun and ‘busses’ is a verb. In a sentence: “The school bus driver busses the students to school in the yellow buses.” Now look what happens when I intentionally mess this up: “The school bus driver buses the students to school in the yellow busses.” Nothing was flagged by Word as incorrect. Now, this is a tough one, because the use of the ‘busses’ spelling as the plural noun was once accepted and has only recently been disfavored. But this example perfectly illustrates the weakness of spellchecking software and the need for true linguistic understanding on the part of the user.


                                                                                                                                        This is a screen shot from the microsoft word document as i was actively typing this copy.

Another good example is one that I actually saw the other day while reading an article online. The article was otherwise well-written and this may have just been an autopilot goof by the author, but little things like this (which go unnoticed by many) can actually ruin good content, prevent it from getting published, and damage an author’s credibility. The author wrote “put the petal to the medal,” a common phrase that, due to reasons of familiarity, would likely be interpreted and understood by the brain before the error was processed. Obviously, this relatively well-known author is intelligent enough to know that a ‘petal’ is a part of a flower and a ‘medal’ is a medallion (think of an Olympic medal). Clearly the reader infers that the author intended to use “pedal to the metal,” which would imply pressing the accelerator pedal in a car until it hits a metal bar or can’t be depressed any further (rather than placing a flower petal on a medallion, though that sounds nice too).  

   another live screen shot from microsoft word that does not flag this common grammatical error. 

   another live screen shot from microsoft word that does not flag this common grammatical error. 

English is a tricky language, and I’m not setting out to pick on anyone. Heck, if we were talking about math you’d have a really hard time getting me not to defend calculators. Spellcheckers are great in a lot of ways and they take much of the manual work out of the revision process. But it’s still crucial to first have a solid understanding of what you’re writing, then revise it on your own more than once, and maybe even have someone else look at it before submitting it for a grade or professional review.

If English wasn’t difficult, my Spanish-speaking friend probably wouldn’t have approached me asking whether ‘sink,’ ‘sing,’ and ‘sick’ are similar in meaning. Villain would be spelled more similarly to marriage and diaper. ‘Rough,’ ‘tough,’ ‘cough,’ and ‘though’ would all sound the same. People wouldn’t use ‘defiantly’ in place of ‘definitely’ – this really happens, and look – no spell check alert when I type the following: It defiantly doesn’t fit. I defiantly want to eat pizza later. Sue defiantly needs a new car.Past’ gets used where ‘passed’ is supposed to be, ‘grate’ gets interchanged with ‘great,’ ‘brake’ with ‘break,’ and these errors slide right through the spell check filter (if only airport security were that easy). Even ‘they’re car’ and ‘their not’ don’t get flagged (above right). See? 

                Another live screen shot from microsoft word that shows no contextual flagging. since the individual words are spelled correctly, the system does not detect an error in using 'defiantly' for 'd…

                Another live screen shot from microsoft word that shows no contextual flagging. since the individual words are spelled correctly, the system does not detect an error in using ‘defiantly’ for ‘definitely.’

A Plea

All of this may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things but these gentle examples are only minor indicators of a glaring, large-scale problem. Technology has crossed beyond the realm of enhancement into the realm of replacement, and there’s far more at stake than literary incompetence. But since we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting what else is sacrificed when linguistic skills fall by the wayside. Spell checking software and other reading and writing convenience-makers shortchange originality and imagination. Do you think Vonnegut relied on software to help him create Slaughterhouse Five? If Steinbeck had been dependent on technology, do you think The Grapes of Wrath would’ve turned out the same?

Who will be the Edgar Allan Poes, the Jane Austens, even the Shakespeares of the future if the young authors of today aren’t taught to value the same things? Will everything start to sound the same? Will we all be scratching our heads, saying ‘huh‘ all the time because of our limited vocabulary? Or will our selection of literary masterpieces just dwindle down to a small handful of skinny paperbacks? Are poetry and prose going to shrivel up and die in the school system, yielding to nothing but mathematics and computers?

We can’t collectively depend on government to uphold the values which matter to its people. Schools are already experiencing cuts in many important areas. But our affinity for and fascination with technology is only showing our kids that we don’t value learning (and retaining) things the long way. It’s showing them that, with money and convenient handheld devices, you can take shortcuts and still get passing grades.

Will tomorrow’s graduates know the difference between an adverb and a conjunction? Will alliteration, allegory, hyperbole, and onomatopoeia be gone with the wind? If that happens, I’m sure we can all just recite old classics from our Kindles to one another, right?

Unless the Kindles are reading to us by then.  

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  1. Linda Christina says:

    Great article!

  2. Gail Leonard says:

    Excellent points – I heartily agree. The lack of true scholarship and the love of learning is painfully obvious when confronted by the average high school student, or even most of those in college. It is a scary prospect.

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