Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Zen of Spell-Checking

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Zen of Spell-Checking

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Who Checks the Spell-Checkers?" by Chris Wilson, in Slate, Dec. 31, 2008.

EVEN THE COCKIEST grammarian can be intimidated by the wavy red underline that signals a misspelled word in most word processing programs. But when Microsoft Word's spell-check routinely suggested that future president Barack Obama's last name be "corrected" to "Boatman" well into 2007, it made the widely used software program seem ridiculous.

Spell-checking doesn't need to be so backward, writes Chris Wilson, an assistant editor at Slate. All the technology needed to produce a timely spelling database already exists in search engines such as Google and Microsoft's own Live Search. Part of the reason for the disparity between the nimbleness of Google and the torpor of Microsoft Word's spell-check--and even that of Google's online word processor Google Docs--is that word processors and search engines try to do different things. Search engines tackle inquiries as broad as human curiosity; word processors are conservative, limiting their lexicons to words that are strictly kosher.

The two technologies update their dictionaries differently, Wilson says. Ten years ago, word processor spelling lists were compiled from web pages or old Internet queries and scrutinized by human editors in software companies. Now, Microsoft keeps on top of change by scanning trillions of words in e-mail messages sent through its Hotmail service, gleaning such terms as "Netflix," "Badiohead, "Lipitor," and "all-nighter, but its spell checker--still overseen by relatively slow-moving humans--makes surprising errors. …

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