Beyond Using a Spellchecker
With the proliferation of computers and word-processing programs, many people have come to rely on technology to tell them whether words are spelled correctly. For most, running a spell check has become the final step in drafting a document; as long as error messages don't pop up along the way, people assume that the words have all been spelled correctly.
A spellchecker, however, is nothing more than a lexicon — a list of words. The computer will compare your word against its list of properly spelled words, giving an error message for anything that doesn't match up. This is why many names of people or places give errors. An error message from a spellchecker is simply a notification that the computer doesn't recognize the word after it compares the word to its internal lists. Sometimes, the computer will offer suggestions, but this is simply based on similarities between your word and the list of words it uses to compare. Remember, computers can't actually think.
Spellcheckers provide a false sense of security. It is possible that computers may become more sophisticated in the future, but for now, they can't tell the difference between different forms of homonyms.
Homonyms are words that sound the same but have different meanings. Examples are
It is our constitutional right to bare arms.
This example sentence is, of course, incorrect. The constitution doesn't say anything about naked arms; it does, however, have an amendment about weapons for personal defense. Therefore, the correct choice would be “bear,” but at this point in time, a computer can't tell you that. You need to know for yourself how these words are used.
It is our constitutional right to bear arms.
The Value of a Good Dictionary
Get into the habit of reaching for your dictionary. A dictionary will tell you not only how to spell a word correctly, it will also tell you how that word is used. Chances are the few seconds it takes you to look up a word and read the definition will mean you'll never have a problem with that word again. That makes such dictionary usage time well spent.
If you use the Internet, there are a great number of dictionaries available online, such as Merriam-Webster Online at
Don't Rely on a Thesaurus Alone
A thesaurus can be a great resource, too. It provides lists of synonyms, or words that have similar meanings. By consulting a thesaurus, you can come up with other words to help you say things a little differently. Many word-processing programs have a thesaurus included, and you can also find them on the Internet; in addition to the dictionary, there's also a thesaurus available at Merriam-Webster Online at
Never assume, however, that the words in a thesaurus are interchangeable. Among the suggestions, you will find similar words, but not words with identical meanings. Before you use a word you find in a thesaurus, look it up in the dictionary to determine its actual meaning. If you don't, you might end up using something that doesn't quite carry the meaning you intend.