All throughout school, my teachers emphasized the need to reread, revise and edit everything. Of course, spell-check or auto-correct on Microsoft Word and smart phones usually caught the obvious mistakes-using an “a” instead of an “i” in definitely, writing “teh” when we meant to say “the”, etc. However, more subtle errors often went unnoticed. Sadly for many of us, spell-check often neglects to pick up on human errors like writing “to” instead of “too” and using the incorrect form of “their/there/they’re”. Being the perfectionist that I am, these errors do not cease to irritate me, causing me to delete many a misspelled Tweet or go back and edit my SC 200 blogs until they are error-free. But in reading other blogs, I have found too many frustrating spelling and grammar errors that seriously interfere in my understanding of what the person is trying to communicate. Often these blogs remain only half read, as the three or more errors in the first paragraph makes finishing and commenting on the blog almost unthinkable. So what’s to blame-a lack of revision, an absence of/low quality spell-check or just sheer laziness? Probably a combination of all those factors, but the so called “Grammar Nazis” want answers. And so of course, I went searching.
The claim that spell-check is making us stupid has been the topic of plenty of articles and 11 o’clock news segments. In fact, the general idea that technology is dumbing us down is of popular interest. Whether it’s GPS, video games or technology in general, it appears are though our cognitive abilities as a population are at risk. An article published by BBC News in 2012 referenced a survey that appears to support the hypothesis that spell-check is “making us dumb”. The survey was commissioned by Mencap and found that out of the 2,000 Britons surveyed, approximately one-third of participants could not spell “definitely” and two-thirds failed to identify the correct spelling of “necessary”. Only 9% of the participants claimed to never use spell-check. The director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, Ian McNeilly, commented that “If people are blindly writing things and expecting automated programs to address all of their inaccurate spellings, that’s a concern-because they won’t” (BBC News).
An article published by the Atlantic Wire in the same year argues that while the conclusions of the Mencap survey hold some validity, “it is hardly a sudden development” (The Atlantic Wire). The article referenced two previous studies, both indicating that bad spelling was a problem long before Microsoft Word. A Stanford University study assembled students’ papers in 1988 and again in 2008 and ranked the most common errors. Within the twenty-year span, the frequency of the use of the wrong word and misspellings jumped dramatically. A 2005 study done by Harvard University on 65 graduate and undergraduate students “at a major northeastern U.S. university” (Harvard study) found that when spell-check was on, participants made more mistakes than when it was turned off.
The conclusion that the Atlantic Wire came up with from these results was that “Computer spell-check, an invention of the 1970s has been making us worse at spelling for at least 25 years” (The Atlantic Wire). Based on the variety of these studies, I find this to be a logical conclusion. A double blind placebo trial isn’t reasonable in this kind of experiment, so the variety and scale of observational studies is critical. These studies have not only tracked the changes in spelling as a result of spell-check over time, but in regards to the Harvard study, the independent variable has been manipulated to see if it has an effect on the dependent variable. While technology has its merits, there are also downsides to consider. Do you find yourself dependent on spell-check when you draft assignments on a computer or smartphone? Are the number of spelling mistakes you make in hand-written notes as frequent as the ones you make on the computer? Would you ever try replicating the Harvard study by turning spell-check software off and seeing how your spelling and grammar is without the threat of those squiggly red lines?