Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Employing e-Tools

Over the weekend, I read a wonderful story written by a twelve-year-old student. I found two mistakes and attempted to point them out. But the young lady in question, being of the ripe old age of twelve, was ever so much smarter than any silly adult. "Oh no," says she. "I spell checked it."

Every year, more and more people, not all of them twelve, fall into this trap. As electronic tools become more powerful, we are lulled into a false sense of security. We believe the tools are looking out for us. My word processor doesn't even wait for me to request a spell check - it corrects words as I'm typing. And the editing doesn't stop with spell checking, it also boasts a grammar checker. If only.

I use many e-tools and am not aware of a single one, or any combination of tools that can replace the human brain. All electronic tools are not created equal, but I used one of the most popular word processors for the following example. The tool uses green underlines to indicate grammar issues and red underlines to indicate spelling issues. You can see the tool has identified three problems. How many errors can you find?

The passage contains at least five errors the software didn't detect. Each of the five involves a perfectly good English word that is spelled correctly, but misused. It gets worse. Both of the "grammar" issues caught by the software also involve incorrect words, but the software doesn't know that and so mislabels the errors.

For the first grammar issue, "form which", the software offers these suggestions:

The tool offers this sage advice for "Their was":

If we simply trust the tool, we will manage to spell "the" correctly, but will still have eight incorrect words and a passage that makes no sense. Have you found at least eight incorrect words?

This is an exaggerated example of one kind of error that typically goes undetected by electronic tools. There are others.

I'm not advocating banishment of these tools. They are wonderful time savers when used correctly. I'm suggesting that tools are more effective when we understand their limitations and use them appropriately. You wouldn't use a rolling pin instead of a steam roller would you?


Charlotte Phillips


  1. Good post, you can't depend on spell check.

  2. I appreciate spell check, but nothing tops eyeball to paper.

    Great post.

  3. You are so right. Use etools at your own risk. Some even insist on changing words I don't want changed and I have to go back and unchange them.

    Morgan Mandel

  4. Several decades ago, I worked for Junior Achievement when they didn't have an on-staff editor. Textbook production seemed to move along just fine until the newest high school economics textbooks were sent out. Within a few weeks, schools were calling JA HQ with complaints. Seems they weren't amused by the idea of encouraging teens to consider "pubic service". The teens were rolling in the aisles, of course. JA hired an editor shortly thereafter.

    Oh, my....

  5. As an instructor of freshman composition, I get into a lot of "discussions" with students on how important it is for their BRAINS to be present in the revision/editing process. Too often, they believe Gates and Microsoft Word know all the answers to grammar and mechanics.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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