Spellcheck Fails

It is hardly a secret that spellcheck software has a long way to go before it is perfected. It’s also true that some critiques deploring its shortcoming are shaper than others. One of the most pointed, most published, and earliest efforts is the poem that follows, by Jerrold H. Zar, a professor at Northern Illinois University. (Dr. Zar credits Pamela Brown with the poem’s title and Mark Eckman for suggesting its opening lines.) Written in 1992, the verses serve up a veritable feast of the kinds of misspellings that are frequently foisted upon on writers by electronic spellcheckers.

At the root of the problem are 1) fewer expert proofreaders of the human sort and 2) homonyms, words pronounced in exactly the same way but spelled differently.* Most computerized proofreading deprives homonyms of context (we’re talkin’ to you, AutoCorrect!) – hence, for instance, its propensity to “correct” a typo such as sei (for see) as sea.

Now to the professor’s poem, a study in the electronic wreaking (not reeking!) of havoc.

*See also Hazardous Homonyms.

Candidate for a Pullet Surprise

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours o’er every word
To cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

To rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.

Got Milque?

A shaky hanger-on in American English’s crowd of eponyms (words derived from the surnames of real or fictional men and women) is milquetoast, a noun and adjective meaning “timid,” “weak,” or “unassertive.” The word is a play on milk toast, a breakfast dish that has been consumed since the Middle Ages or even earlier.* The player in this case was the New York Tribune cartoonist H. T. Webster, who in the 1920s built his cartoon strip The Timid Soul around a character he named Caspar Milquetoast – in Webster’s words, “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” Before long, milquetoast had entered our vocabulary to describe anyone or anything seemingly weak and ineffectual.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for milquetoast to be misspelled as milktoast. (In 1959, syndicated advice-columnist Ann Landers began a response to a reader who complained that her husband was under the thumb of his domineering mother with, “Why don’t you put the blame where it belongs – right on Caspar Milktoast’s shoulders?”) Though the word is used less frequently today, the milktoast spelling has become increasingly common. Don’t know about you, but when it comes to the resolution of this burning issue I’m not averse to taking the same weak-kneed stance Caspar himself would doubtlessly choose: Let it be… Qué sera, sera… What, me worry?

A fourth old saying is in order as well: “Some things never change.” Both the breakfast dish and the word were preceded seven centuries earlier by the Middle English milksop, defined in the literal sense as “a piece of bread soaked in milk” and figuratively as “an effeminate or spiritless man or youth; one wanting in courage or manliness.”

Milquetoast is positively ornate compared to the synonymous shorties wimp and wuss – neither in much danger of being misspelled. Nevertheless, wimp, which dates from the 1920s, is thought to have come from whimper (the barely audible h easily could have been dropped on the word’s journey to common usage). Wussie came onto the scene in the 1970s, probably as a blend of wimp and pussy,* and soon shed its final syllable to become wuss.

*If you’ve never had milk toast and want to give it a try, here’s the easier-than-pie recipe: Butter a piece of freshly toasted bread and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar. Tear the toast into bite-size pieces, put them into a small bowl, and top with warm milk.

 **For more blends, some of them surprising, open our Goodies Bag and click on Portmanteau Words.

Your Not Their Yet?

Nope, you’re not “there” if the title of this post doesn’t jump out at you like a hopped-up kangaroo – in this case, “there” referring to the correct spelling of a handful of increasingly (and erroneously) swapped homonyms*: there, their, and they’re, plus you’re and your. You have arrived when you’re able to choose and spell them as follows:

“There was tension in the air as the sitter said, ‘You’re going to be in big trouble, kids, if you  don’t stop  your mischief. Your parents will be home in a minute, and they’re not going to like what you’ve done to their room.’”

Misspellers are doubtlessly aware of the homonyms’ meanings, but that doesn’t mean the words aren’t worth defining. For casual spellers, the definitions serve as a reminder of how very different all of them are. Said homonyms, one-by-one:

     there As an adverb there can mean “at, in, into, or toward  a place,” as in “Phil loved Hashop’s Drugs, stopping there often for a Coke float.”). As a pronoun it introduces a sentence or clause: “There was reason to believe Phil had a crush on Kathy.”

     their The possessive form of the pronoun they: “Their dates went from soda-sharing to movies at the Hillside Drive-In.”

     they’re Contraction of they are: “They’re some of the most talented musicians around.”

     your Possessive form of the pronoun you: “Your eyes look even greener when you wear that scarf.”

     you’re Contraction of you are: “You’re cruising for a bruising if you speak ill of Will.”

The key to keeping the words straight is giving some thought to each as you write it – a pipe dream for a lot of people in this day and age, but a way to get THERE orthographically intact.

*For similar mix-ups, see Hazardous Homonyms in Spellcheck.

Metal vs. Mettle

First sentence in the August 24, 2012, New York Times review of the movie Premium Rush:

“Pushing pedal to the mettle and its breezily thin, goofy story to the breaking point, ‘Premium Rush’ provides just about all the late summer air-conditioned relief you could hope for.”

Nice opening, critic Manohla Dargis, but what’s up with “pedal to the mettle,” a shortening of push the pedal to the metal? The phrase is a car-based metaphor for doing something as quickly or forcefully as possible (the metal referred to is the bar at the bottom of the footwell beneath the accelerator). The homonyn mettle is steely in its own right, given that it means both “strength of spirit or temperament” and “stamina” – but “metal” it is not.

This malapropism has the feel of having been inflicted by Auto Correct, the ubiquitous (and increasingly imperious) electronic substitute for real, live copyeditors and proofreaders. Talk about driving writers to distraction! A computer may beat a world champion in the game of Chess, but it’s a good bet that software will never conquer the complexities of our language.

Words Even College Profs Misspell

The correct spelling of certain words can escape even the scholarly, and these twelve are among the most frequently mangled.

ad nauseam  This word’s last syllable sounds like um, so most people spell it that way: ad nauseum. To speakers of Latin the word meant “to sickness.” To us it means “to an excessive degree.”

bellwether  Meaning “forerunner” or “leader,” bellwether sounds as if it should be a clangy weathervane, so it comes as no surprise that writers of all sorts often wedge an a between the second e and the t.

canvass You paint on a canvas or buy it buy the yard. You canvass for votes when you run for treasurer of The Walking Dead fan club. Cast a vote for that extra s.

desiccate Hippies who desiccate (dry) their own fruit know to give this word one s and then double the c. Less self-reliant folks are more likely to do the opposite and write the word as dessicate.

discrete  Discrete is so often misspelled as discreet you’d think these homonyms were alternative spellings of the same word.* They aren’t. Something discrete is either separate (or distinct) in form or consists of separate parts. Someone who is discreet is tactful or subtle or restrained.

ecstasy The penultimate in ecstasy is replaced by a c more often than club kids down pills. Do your old English teachers a favor and use the s.

inoculate  The  -in (“not”) starting this word triggers our in prefix reflex to double the n. The one and only n is rooted in the Latin word inoculate, meaning “implant,” though today an inoculation “injects.”

liquefy  Liquid isn’t spelled “liqued,” so why the e? Because the root of liquefy is the Old French word liquefier. Know, though, that spelling the word with the i of liquid is a perfectly acceptable alternative, as any dictionary will show.

minuscule  It only makes sense for a word meaning “very small” to start with mini-, doesn’t it?  Not in this case. The natural mnemonic for remembering the u in minuscule is in the first two syllables: minus (“less”).

restaurateur  Where did the n go, you ask? Well, an n wasn’t there to begin with. The word for the proprietor of an eatery is only slightly kin to the borrowed-from-French restaurant. The Latin root for both is restaurare, meaning “restore.”

sacrilegious  Because most of this word is pronounced the same as religious (and rightly so), even the most devout spellers tend to misspell sacrilegious. Did someone play a dirty trick and switch the e and i in the first and second syllables of religious? No, but there’s your mnemonic.

supersede  It’s no wonder so many people write this word as supercede; a spelling variant since the seventeenth century, it regularly pops up in print and online. For now, though, sticklers will want to choose the s over the c.

* For similar mixups, see Hazardous Homonyms in Spellcheck.

Hazardous Homonyms

Homonyms are accidents waiting to happen: words that sound exactly the same yet differ in their spelling and have meanings that are miles apart. Such mix-ups are so common these days it sometimes seems as if half the population doesn’t quite understand that, when writing, we go over there but stay out of their way; like your style but think you’re too picky; dress with flair but ignite a flarepore over a book but pour a glass of water; try to rein in a horse but reign over a kingdom (or, say, a competitor); and wait with bated breath to see if we’ve been baited by a too-good-to-be-true advertisement.

Worse, legions of copyeditors and proofreaders have ridden off into the sunset and left even our leading publications peppered with misspellings. A decade ago, would the New York Times have allowed such lapses to make their way into the paper? Not likely. But in the past year or so, the misspellings below were among the several that appeared in the online edition and will stay put in print editions for the long haul. (On the other hand, to my knowledge no newspaper goes to greater lengths to correct errors both typographical and factual than the Times, and in a timely manner.)

  • gate  for gait
  • palette for palate
  • mettle for metal*

Other homonym mix-ups pop up like weeds in a vacant lot, among them discreet for discrete; phase for faze; capital for capitol; principle for principal; compliment for complement; and hair for hare. I’d like to think that many people simply slip up and then fail to double-check their scribblings… but how many bother in a day when spelling and grammar take a back seat to speed? Also, the more some misspellings appear, the more likely they are to be seen as correct – worrisome for Wordies but apparently not that big a deal for the average Joe or Jane.

Sound-alike Snags

Keeping company with hazardous homonyms are similar-sounding terms just waiting to be confused. Too often heard and seen are the likes of elude for the correct allude; squash for quashjive with for jibe withhurdle for hurtlewreck havoc for wreak havocdribble for drivelbold-faced lie for bald-faced lie; conscious for conscience; could of for could have; theirselves for themselves; and cachet (ca- as in “cat” plus SHAY) for cache (pronounced CASH). Then there’s the wholly off-base flushed out for fleshed out. An all the more woeful mix-up is hone in for home in, and the TV talking head who gets this phrase right is a rare bird. My jaw dropped when I heard one cable regular refer to a homing pigeon (a pigeon able to find its way home over vast distances) as a honing pigeon (a pigeon trained to sharpen blades?)

Does your jaw occasionally drop too? Or do you see mix-ups of this ilk as no cause for alarm? Way in (oops! Weigh in) if you please, as we mull over this burning question.

*See Metal vs. Mettle.