Why We Can’t Rely on Spell-Checkers for Proofreading


With the near ubiquity of spell-checkers across all platforms, many people no longer worry about correct spelling. Let the spell-checkers handle it! And they do—mostly. But spell-checkers don’t care about context; if we spell the word correctly, they’re happy. So, “I here you” has spell-checkers turning cartwheels.

At some things, a human brain still performs better than a computer, like distinguishing homonyms—here and hear; there, their, and they’re—or words spelled correctly but confused with similar-looking words—adverse and averse. Spell-checkers get it right most of the time, and writers need to help them the rest of the way by carefully proofreading. WordRake founder Gary Kinder makes a similar argument in his writing tip Fishing and Renal Services.

I have always cared about writing and spelling. In third grade, I lost a spelling bee when I misspelled disciple—especially awkward at a Catholic school. I vowed I would win the spelling bee when I got to middle school. For weeks in sixth grade, I pored over 1,000 entries on a list of possible words, and I won. But after winning, I advanced to the citywide spelling bee, where I got so nervous I spelled janitor with a g. At age eleven, I wasn’t sure I would recover.

As adults we have a lot more riding on our spelling than winning a spelling bee, yet misspellings and incorrect usage still creep into our email to a prospective employer, a new client, or an intimidating colleague and make us look unprofessional and unreliable. And we can’t expect the spell-checkers to do all the checking for us.

WordRake editing software is not a spell-checker, but from it we learn the same lesson: Don’t rely on proofreading software blindly. WordRake will help us spot needless words so we can write more clearly and concisely, but about 6% of the time, it will suggest an edit that slightly changes the meaning. That’s where writer and WordRake collaborate: WordRake draws our eye to the sentence, then we take over: “I see what you’re trying to do; I wouldn’t have noticed that; I’ll take it from here.”

Think of spell-checkers as collaborators like WordRake: working with the writer, but not perfect. It’s the nature of the English language—200,000 English words and all their permutations. When we make a typo, the spell-checkers take over and correct it for us. And when we get too close to our writing, we’re too tired, or we don’t know how to tighten our sentences, WordRake takes over, because it knows far more edits than any human editor could ever keep in her head.

Spelling and editing software can help us, but we still need our human brain to proofread, especially with spell-checkers. Our friends and relatives might find our errors amusing, but our colleagues probably won’t. Besides renal and rental, here are three more pairs of words easily confused but correctly spelled.



an aisle is a passageway

an isle is an island, especially a small one



a desert is hot and dry

a dessert is usually sweet



something tortuous bends and twists and winds

something torturous hurts and might be illegal 

The above words are unlikely to feature in a spelling bee, but they could end up in your texts and emails. Be your own proofreading tool for spelling; if you’re unsure, take a moment to research a word. And use WordRake when you’re too tired or can’t see how to tighten what you’ve written.

Blog in your Inbox

Recent Posts

About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder
Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for the American Bar Association, the Social Security Administration, PG&E, Kraft, Microsoft, and law firms like Jones Day, Sidley, and WilmerHale. His critically-acclaimed Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea hit #7 on the New York Times Bestsellers List.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to provide writers a full-time, reliable editor; to save them time and money; and to give them the confidence their writing is as clear and concise as they can make it. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office has awarded nine patents to WordRake's unique technology, and Harvard Law School has recognized WordRake as "Disruptive Innovation."