Photo Credit: Alexa Mazzarello via Unsplash

Dear reader, I have friends who would be utterly lost without Spell Check. Their documents and emails would be incomprehensible if not for that omnipresent grammatical sentinel. First drafts are often festooned with so many red underlines that it might be faster to count how many words were NOT spelled incorrectly.

Now at this point, you may assume that my friends are illiterate, or at least ignorant of the finer points of grammar and good writing. This is not true at all. The people to whom I refer are, in fact literate, skilled in the use of the written word and, it must be said, quite intelligent. The problem is Spell Check itself.

“Now steady on Mackenzie,” I hear you cry, spraying latte onto your monitor in consternation. “Is this some kind of anti-technology rant?”

Put down your metaphorical pitchforks my carbon-based compadres. I assure you that this is not some Luddite tirade about the evils of technology and how we’d all be better off scratching messages on animal skins instead of using email and other such “tools of the devil.” I’d also recommend not shouting at your computer. It looks weird… and people have been talking.

Anyway, I am in fact a strong proponent of technology and of the world-wide-inter-web-net. I believe the Internet is the most inclusive, powerful and collaborative tool ever invented by man. It is however, only a tool, and like any good tool, it must have fuel to work. Whether that fuel comes from human muscle, gas or electricity, the quality of the work produced by the tool is only as good as the quality of the fuel used to power it.

I believe that, in a laudable if flawed attempt to help us improve our written communications, Spell Check and its brethren – Grammar Check and the much maligned Autocorrect – have instead served to dilute our ability to craft language in a compelling way.

The problem with relying on Spell Check for our writing is just that – our reliance on it. We’re handing our editing – and on some level of our creativity – to a piece of software that uses cold logic and an arbitrary list of “accepted” words to make our ideas clear. This is particularly true of Autocorrect, a… “feature” (if one can use so noble a term to describe something universally hated) common to any smartphone user, but one that is also starting to appear in desktop word-processing software. Shakespeare said it best: “…angels and ministers of grace defend us.” The interwebz are replete with complaints and jokes about *Autocorrect* and its less-than-ideal suggestions, but my concern goes deeper than that.

There is an ineffable quality to the written word that’s lost when we rely on software to choose our words for us. Human languages, from English, French, Italian and German, to Afrikaans, Nambya and Gaelic – are far too subtle to commit to algorithms and cold logic. No matter how sophisticated the software may be, the essence of language will invariably be lost in translation.

As our world becomes increasingly instantaneous, we spend less and less time considering our words and their impact. So-called conveniences like Autocorrect and Spell Check feed perfectly into this fetish for speed, allowing people – for reasons that mystify me – to get those ideas out before anyone else. In my 40 years of life I’ve noted a definite deterioration in the writing ability of students. In their excellent book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa analyzed more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, and found that 45 percent of those students demonstrated no significant improvement in a range of skills — including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing — during their first two years of college.

Obviously there are many factors that contribute to this issue, but I would submit that our increasing reliance on “convenience” technologies such as Spell Check and Autocorrect are degrading our ability to communicate. When you rely on your own editing and proofreading, you pick up on subtle nuances in tone that no software program would ever detect.

Self-editing forces you to slow down and actually read what you have written, rather than simply skimming it to ensure there are no obvious errors. This can only improve written communication skills.

Being the astute and perspicacious humans that you folks most assuredly are, you will no doubt have noticed that I have not talked about Spell Check’s cousin, Grammar Check. In that observation, you would be correct. The less said about that particular misguided, intelligence-insulting, technological aberration the better. Let us move on.

Comedian George Carlin once said (quite correctly as it happens) that the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language. While Spell Check and the like help ensure that writing is technically correct according to the rules of grammar (many of which are, in fact, wrong or irrelevant, though that’s another tale for another time), the end result is homogenous and sterilized.

The writing process is individualistic, so much so that we can often identify a writer simply by their choice of words. Put simply, language is a living thing. It can be subtle, nuanced and delicate. It can be blunt, heavy, and aggressive. It is, truly, a reflection of the complex and dichotomous creatures who use it.

Writing is a craft. A professional writer will often spend hours pouring over a single paragraph, ensuring that each word conveys the tone and carries the story they wish to tell most effectively. Well… I do at any rate. It is, quite simply, an art. An email or a business report is no less important and worthy of our literary attention than a work of finely crafted fiction.

Spell Check and Autocorrect have their uses, but beware of relying on them. The logical choice isn’t always the right one.

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