Spell-checkers get very little love in most editing circles. “When spell-check won’t help” is a common theme in Twitter posts from @GrammarMonkeys (news editors at the Wichita Eagle) and many others. The New York Times’ grammar, usage, and style blog After Deadline has recently featured “When Spell-Check Can’t Help” and “Spell-Check: Still No Help.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that spell-check is no help, but like most editors, I use it with caution as a tool rather than as a replacement for careful editing and proofreading. And I’m happy to see that the tool may be getting sharper.
Google recently released an update to its Google Docs spell-checker. As the search engine does with search terms, the spell-checker now uses Web-harvested information to make context-sensitive suggestions for misspellings in Google documents. Examples from the Docs Blog include “Let’s meat tomorrow for coffee,” which prompts “Did you mean: meet” and the following nifty display for icland is an icland:
Although a number of homophones I tested were appropriately flagged, Google spell-check doesn’t seem to perform much better than Word 2010’s spell-check for common culprits like its/it’s and their/there/they’re. Both caught most but not all of the test errors. It does excel, however, at proper nouns. Typing Barrak Obahma gives one correct suggestion on Google Docs, but a list of possible suggestions in Word. Similarly, Word suggestions the unhelpful Eli noise for University of Elinoise; Google knows it should be Illinois.
When might spell-check help? When you use Google Docs and write or edit content that includes a variety of proper nouns and pop culture references.