Spellcheck Sucks! An Occasional Series from Wordnerdia

So, spellcheckers suck. This isn’t news. And I’m not going to mention any particular spellcheck and its particular brand of suckiness, because the suckage is pretty much universal. Plus I don’t want to get sued. (Look up “exercise in futility”.)

Once upon a time when I was a grad slave — I mean teaching assistant — I had a student who, at the end of his twenty-page report, hit “Spellcheck” and then “Accept All”. No, he did not review any of the changes.  I was glad he did this: the results were very entertaining, and I got a chance to say to the rest of the class: “See this? Don’t do this.”

As an editor, I use spellcheckers all the time. I use them mostly to catch artifacts from the change-tracking feature: sometimes it’s hard to sort out all those red marks and underlines and strikeouts and whatnot. I generally turn on the “check grammar” option because why not? And that’s where spellcheckers show off their extra-special suckitude. Here’s today’s example, from a really good book I’m editing, Brand Gamblin’s “Discount Miracles” (coming soon to Amazon and other purveyors of fine self-publishment. Click to see other excellent titles by Brand Gamblin*).

Here’s the passage I was checking:

The prince nodded, “Good thinking. Thank you, your eminence.” He stood up to face the crowd. He threw his head back and struck a pose to reveal himself in all his finery. The effect was powerful. Light glistened off the golden design woven into the robe. It shone off his oily hair.

(Just fyi, his hair is oily because he has been anointed as a god.)

OK, so here’s the suggested revision from the spellchecker:

The prince nodded, “Good thinking. Thank you, your eminence.” He stood up to face the crowd. He threw his head back and struck a pose to reveal himself in all his finery. The effect was powerful. Light glistened off the golden design woven into the robe. It shown off his oily hair.

Now, what the hell is that? What would that even mean? This part is actually quite fascinating to me: what grammatical rules are encoded in a spellchecker that would lead to this silliness?

Even if the sentence were set in the passive (“It was shown off his oily hair”) there wouldn’t even be an implied subject. What, “… by the Law of Reflection”?

OK, I’ll accept that. Then if we try to set it straight using the good words (right order) approach of SV(O), we get “The law of reflection showed the light off his oily hair.”

But, of course, “off” is shorthand, so we might more correctly say “The law of reflection showed the light by bouncing it off his oily hair.”

But that’s still nonsense, and why? Why?

Extra Nerd Points: because the verb “show” is DItransitive! Duh!

We would need a subject and TWO objects, a theme and a recipient! Where is our recipient? In this particular case, it was the audience. So now the spellchecker wants “The law of reflection showed the light TO the audience by bouncing it off his oily hair.”

Which is stupid.

And that’s why spellchekers suck.

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*Yes this is his actual name, not a nom de plume swiped from a Marlboro Man. I truculently refused to believe it, insisting that it must be an Ellis Island revision of “Brandon Gamblinstein” or “Brando Gamblini”. He’s been signing his e-mail “Brando” ever since. Great guy. Great writer. Go buy some books.

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4 Comments

Filed under Spellcheck Sucks!

4 responses to “Spellcheck Sucks! An Occasional Series from Wordnerdia

  1. David Belson

    I’m impressed that you remember your time as a TA in that much detail — I think I’ve filed it in with my repressed memories…

  2. brandgamblin

    I’m totally changing that line to “The law of reflection showed the light to the audience by bouncing it off his oily hair.”

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