Monday, September 18, 2006

Today's English lesson

From Common Errors in English:

Garbage In/Garbage Out:
Common Errors Created By
Over-reliance On Spellcheckers

The venerable computer science axiom "Garbage in, Garbage out" usually brings to mind ancient, chattering machines filling entire buildings and requiring an army of lab-coated caretakers. However, it is still accurate; all we've done in the past fifty years is to improve the speed at which errors are compounded.

In the arena of English errors, the GIGO process is perpetrated by spelling checkers. More accurately, it's perpetrated by the users of spelling checkers, who apply them to source material beyond the program's ability to help. The results vary according to the quality of the spell checking program.

Remember, a spelling checker only works if the source word it is given is already close to the intended word. For instance, my spell checker will easily catch and correct "definately," returning the correct result. If, however, the word supplied is "definantly," a common Web word-mangling, the only word the spell checker can suggest is "defiantly." Hence the occasional assertion of the form "Lincoln is defiantly the best president America ever had."

Further, spell checkers won't recognize a misused word that is spelled correctly, e.g. "effect" used where "affect" is appropriate. Nor will they find errors related to specialized words not included in their lexicon.

Spelling checkers are wonderful tools. Just remember that as a hammer may mash your thumb, a spell checker may mash your words. The only certain way to be correct is to know what you're saying.

Here are some sample triplets of real words matched with the original misspelling and the second-generation misspelling generated by machine:

Right: infinitely
Wrong: infinitly
Spellcheck: infinity

Right: a lot
Wrong: alot
Spellcheck: allot

Right: espresso
Wrong: expresso
Spellcheck: express

Right: surprised
Wrong: surpised
Spellcheck: surpassed

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