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English Plus+ News, January 2002

Spell Checker "Misspellings"

A New Phenomenon

So you think your spell checker helps? Most of the time it does, but there are some words which were seldom misspelled when people used dictionaries--but now they are commonly misspelled because of the nature of spell checkers.

A Little History of Misspelled Words

I have been teaching high school for twenty-one years. Before that, I was an editor, and before that I was a military officer who supervised an office. In all of these jobs I have read what many different people have written for me. I became accustomed to the idea that certain people would always have some trouble spelling certain words. I have lost track, for example, of the number of times I have seen their spelled either there or thier. It is a common error among some people.

Now a spell checker can actually help with a problem like that a little bit. There is no word in English spelled thier. Therefore, a spell checker can point out that error and the writer can correct it. However, we can see there are limitations to what the spell checker can do. If a writer spells there when their is meant, most spell checkers will pass right over that mistake because there is a word. It is just the wrong word!

When the Wrong Word Looks Right

What I have noticed is that some words which were seldom misspelled are now more commonly misspelled because people choose the wrong word from the spell checker. In such cases, there is usually one word which is fairly common and one which is not. This, of course, is a new phenomenon which I started noticing about ten years ago. In fact, that expression of course is a good example. Until the early nineties, I rarely saw this phrase misspelled. When I did, it was usually spelled of corse, with the u left out. Now, I frequently come across a misspelling that I never saw before--of coarse.

The word coarse is an English word. It is not nearly as common in everyday use as course, but it is a word. It means "thick" or "crude." But if writers misspell of course and the checker gives them a choice of words, they still may have to look the word up if they don't know the difference between course and coarse. Let's face it. Many times we do not bother looking up words when we should. So we guess or for some other reason choose the wrong suggested word. I have noted a few other "new" misspellings.

Do You Need a Lot of Help?

The phrase a lot has often been misspelled. The traditional way of misspelling it is to combine the words into a single word--"alot." I have seen this a lot; I still do on occasion. But something changed with the advent of the spell checker. Now, I sometimes see the word allot where a lot was intended. I never saw that until about ten years ago when my students started using spell checkers. It is understandable. If a writer thinks the term is a single word, then the writer may choose the option that is a single word.

If you think about it a bit, you can understand that a lot is two words. First of all, sometimes we make a plural out of it, and we drop the a. We may say, "There were a lot of people at the game." We could also say, "There were lots of people at the game." When we say lots we put lot in the plural. We do not say a lots.

Also, we sometimes add an adjective to describe the word lot. It always goes between the a and the lot. Probably the best known example is the song by rock pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis entitled "There's a Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On." He did not sing, "There's Whole a Lot of Shakin'..."

The word allot is a verb which means "to divide up or distribute shares." The noun form is allotment.

A Vicious Cycle
Over the years, it has not been shocking to me to see the word vicious misspelled. Usually it was misspelled with an s instead of a c. It was spelled phonetically something like visius or even vishess. People do not always realize that the root of this word is vice.

In the last ten years, I have seen a new misspelling I never used to see. I have seen it spelled viscous. Viscous is also a word in English, but it is a technical term and is not very common in everyday speech. It is an adjective describing a thick fluid. Still, I now occasionally read about a "viscous murder" or a "viscous killer." People using the spell checker must be looking for something that begins with vis and viscous looks the closest. Sometimes vicious may not even be an option the checker gives if the writer begins his or her misspelling with vis.

If this has been a problem for you. Now you know.

A Desperate Spelling

The word desperate is frequently misspelled. The schwa or slurred second syllable I have seen spelled spar and spir as well as sper. Before the advent of the spell checker, I would note the misspelling and that would be it. Perhaps I would note that the root of the word, sper, means "hope," so desperate means "out of hope" or something similar.

What has happened now something new. Now I see the word frequently spelled disparate. That is a different word with a completely different meaning and pronunciation. Again, like viscous, it is not a very common word and many people are not familiar with it. So when they see it as a choice on a spell checker, it looks close.

The word disparate means "distinctive, different," or "various." It is not so much a technical term; it is simply not a word that is used frequently by most people. It does appear in most spell checkers and dictionaries, so now it gets confused with a word that it never used to get confused with. The second syllable is accented and pronounced like pair.

Defusing a Problem

One of the most common "spell checker" spelling errors I have seen is the confusion between defuse and diffuse. These words are pronounced differently--the first e in defuse is long. The s in defuse sounds like a z, while the s in diffuse is pronounced like an s when the word is an adjective and like a z when the word is a verb.

Defuse is simply the word fuse plus the prefix de-. It literally means "to remove a fuse," just like declaw means "to remove the claws." It is often used figuratively in the sense of resolving a conflict or easing a difficult situation. It may be used in politics or diplomacy in this figurative way, so you do come across it in the news from time to time.

Diffuse as the adjective means either "wordy" or "spread out." As a verb it means "to pour or spread out." If a diplomat is "diffusing a difficult situation," he is stirring it up or spreading it out. That is rarely what diplomats are instructed to do. It would not be very diplomatic!

These words are only distantly related and were not normally confused until the advent of the spell checker.

What Can We Learn from This?

What can we learn from this? Very simple. Spell checkers are very handy tools. If I had a dollar for the number of times I typed teh instead of the and nad instead of and, I would be rich. A spell checker catches and corrects such typographical errors. But checkers have their limits. You still must have a good idea of the spelling of the word that you want to use. If you are not sure, check the definition in the dictionary or in a computer reference tool like Grammar Slammer Deluxe. As Disney's Davy Crockett used to say,"Be sure you are right, and then go ahead."

May all your anguish be vanquished,

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