Is Spell-Check Making Us Stupid?

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.

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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?

3 thoughts on “Is Spell-Check Making Us Stupid?

  1. Caitlin Clements

    Lemmy-I really appreciated your comment and your reference to the Cupertino effect. Interestingly, I never found an article referring to it while doing my research for the blog, but I think it touches upon the fact that our spell-check dependence isn’t restricted to our generation/students alone. The fact that NATO and UN documents are full of such a clear mistake is a bit concerning but truly points out the magnitude of our dependence.
    Nia-Your pre-calculus reference put a new spin on the topic and is something I can relate to. Currently in my MATH 110 class, we are not permitted to use calculators on exams, which many people argue is a ridiculous requirement considering that in the business world nearly all calculations are done on a calculator. However, we only truly understand why mathematical formulas work if we do proofs and begin by performing the calculations by hand. I can definitely see both sides of the argument in this situation and don’t really know where I stand.
    Even though blogs are known for having a more relaxed writing style, from a personal standpoint I see this blog and the quality of what I post on it as a reflection of myself. As Andrew mentioned in class, this blog receives thousands of views. It’s very possible that future employers could find it when searching our names online. I want to publish something I’m proud of, so I take the extra five minutes to read over my posts. It’s frustrating having to read blogs where the author clearly doesn’t feel the same way. Whatever the reason for the errors, based on my research it seems as though technology definitely has an effect on our writing quality. While the internet offers us the opportunity to search whatever question our hearts desire and gain more knowledge about the world, it appears as though it is also causing our spelling to suffer.

  2. NIA J NICHOLSON

    Please excuse any error I make when commenting on your blog. This blog really hits home for me because I am a journalism major. In high school, I barely learned grammar and with that being said, my high school graduation rate wasn’t too high. I have become so lazy that I even rely on spell check; to spell the words I know how to spell. I know that sounds weird but I like to type out all my thoughts first, and then add commas and all the other punctuations. It’s a really bad habit and I am starting to see that now. And I wouldn’t say that people are lazy for making errors in their writing because that can be a result of many factors. I find that it is really hard to correct your own writing and it’s always better to get fresh eyes to read over your papers. This blog is a little more laid back so people use a more relaxed writing style. Also, I think its true that technology is to blame for a lot of the changes in society including, spelling, reading and having simple conservations. I wouldn’t call it a bad thing though. As human beings we have to adapt to the times to be able to survive. An example of that are matrices in math. I remember when I took pre-calculus and we did matrices and used a calculator. My teacher told me that when she was in school, she had to do matrices by hand. I couldn’t imagine writing out matrices. I understand that people should know how to spell and use correct grammar, but in the next couple of generations that might not be something of value because spell-check will be more advanced. Why are people going to waste their time on learning something that can technically be done for you? Things like knowing how to drive a car will be non-existent in the future because of the advancement of science. We will have new things to learn in place of the old things and different things to worry about.
    The one thing that I am really worried about is the structured inequality when it comes to technology. People that don’t have the money to get the new technology and don’t know how to work it will be at a disadvantage. I know this example I am about to give is a stretch but just to stick with your blog topic, I am going to use it. Say in the next couple generations, spelling really becomes something of non-value. The people that don’t have the money to afford computers will have to learn how to spell and write the hard way, while people with money will have spell check and whatever else comes out to correct people’s writing for them. The poor people will be wasting their time trying to learn something that could technically be done for them. It won’t be a valued skill anymore, which puts them at a greater disadvantage when it comes to employment and things of that nature. In todays society there are so many “social media” internships because companies want people that know how to work them so they can compete in a market where everybody uses it.
    Your blog is very interesting and this is the longest comment I have written yet. I am really against this whole technology is making use dumber movement. Doing things the old fashion way is just simply going to die out as new generations grow and will not be valued traits anymore. Technology teaches us new ways to do things and just new thing in general so we should embrace it.
    But then again, I do understand that fundamentals like spelling and knowing how to cite things correctly are important, which both seem to be a problem in this class.

  3. LEMMY NGUGI THUKU

    Hi,

    I was very interested in your post, firstly because I am only now realising how horrible my spelling is, since I’ve recently changed my auto-correct to French so I am unsure about most of the english words I spell.

    Funnily enough though, I recently listened to a podcast that mentioned the issue under discussion. Part of the podcast from radiolab.org talked about “the Cupertino effect”. This effect refers to when people over-rely on their spell-checker and then the spell checker/ autocorrect suggests/ gives them innappropriate words which you blindly accept.

    According to the podcast, the effect is named “Cupertino” because in the past microsoft word only recognised the hyphenized version of “Co-operation” and thus would flag unhyphenized “Cooperation” as an error. It would then suggest the word “Cupertino” which is the name of a town, and alot of people would take the suggestion without thinking. As a result all kinds of documents e.g. from NATO, UN etc are riddled with this mistake of “cupertino” where the writter actually meant cooperation.

    The link for the podcast is below, the topic comes up just after minute 13:

    http://www.radiolab.org/2010/jun/28/

    When you rely on a spell-checker too much

    cooperation, not there coz expected co-.., so

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