Opinion

Navy, baby, pubic and Zaradari: turn off your spell check

Why ‘auto correct generation’ produces more spelling errors
Nov 15, 2021

Do you have a really serious business with the English language, such as writing business emails and letters, sending out newsletters, or producing news stories or web content? Well, spelling mistakes could prove expensive or embarrassing.

Take, for example, Karachi Commissioner Muhammad Iqbal Memon’s innocent flub over the weekend. He was tweeting about the fire that broke out in Cooperative Market and the rescue services that were helping control the blaze. His autocorrect turned ‘Navy’ into ‘baby’.  

This was admittedly, a minor mistake, and the Commissioner swiftly deleted the tweet and posted a correction. But if you work in the book publishing world or relish a life in academia, such a permanent spelling mistake could prove embarrassing or humiliating.

Those who have never ventured into the deeper waters of professional writing may be forgiven for thinking that in this age of spell-checkers and auto-corrects no one makes spelling mistakes. The reality, however, is completely the opposite.

Why do we make spelling mistakes that stare us in the face after we hit ‘send’ or ‘publish’? And how do spell checkers and autocorrects contribute to those mistakes?

Let’s hear a story, from the real world.

Maharaja Jayendra Pratap Singh is an Indian son-in-law of Pakistan.

He is the titular head of Balrampur region in Uttar Pradesh, India. His influence extends over three hundred villages with a population of 500,000. Singh was born in 1980 and educated at the prestigious Mayo College in Ajmer. In 2008, he married Rajkumari Mahalaxmi Sodha, the daughter of Rana Hamir Singh of Amarkot, or Umarkot, in Sindh, Pakistan. Rana Hamir Singh is a former Sindh minister of agriculture.

Maharajas usually invoke an image of luxuries and comforts. But this maharaja gave up the luxury that we know as auto-correct and spell-check. He was so disenchanted with it that he stopped using computers and bought himself a typewriter.

Maharaja Jayendra Pratap Singh

He did it for a good reason.

As a young man Jayendra Pratap Singh used to help his father with correspondence. He soon realised that “a computer's easy access to spell-check could make for lazy penmanship. He transitioned to the typewriter because he wanted to improve his creative writing skills,” according to a BBC News report that on old typewriters in India.

Pratap Singh was not the only one to feel the indolence promoted by technology.

In 2012, a survey commissioned by British charity Mencap revealed that an ‘auto-correct generation’ of Britons was unable to correctly spell common words such as ‘necessary,’ ‘definitely’ and ‘separate.’

At least 2,000 adults had taken the survey and only one in five was able to answer all five questions correctly, that is a mere 20%.

Respondents confirmed that they had been using their computer’s spell checking and auto correct functions extensively.

It’s not that most of them had dropped out of school early and then forgot to spell. Active students turned out to be the worst spell checkers of all the people surveyed.

The findings were reported by all major British media outlets including Daily Mail and the BBC.

What is worse thing than not knowing spelling? Not knowing you don’t know how to spell correctly. Most of the respondents thought they got the spellings right.

Unsurprisingly, older people did better on the test.

The spell checkers were introduced in the 1980s and, incidentally, people born after that point of time have become part of the Auto-Correct Generation. That’s in the western context. In countries like Pakistan and India, auto-correct generation is a little younger.

Why do people make so many spelling mistakes despite the use of spell-checkers?

“I don’t even look anymore. I just type a lot. I hope it all works out. Plus, there is always a red line that lets me know if I spell something wrong,” says Joe Bereta, who runs a YouTube channel.

Why do errors increase with spell checkers?

There is no denying that spell checkers have created a dependency that has made us forget spellings. But why do we make spelling mistakes with a spell checker on?

Let’s hear another story. This time from the not-so-real world of Plato.

We all know that Greek philosopher Plato did not like poets for the reasons he lists in The Republic. But you might not have heard that Plato also disdained writing!

In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato narrates how writing was invented.
The story goes that the inventor who created writing came to an Egyptian king and presented his invention with the following words: “Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories. My discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.”

The king was not impressed and challenged that claim.

He said writing, however valuable it was, would increase forgetfulness among people.

“They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.”

As we know from history, writing ended the oral tradition of learning. It is believed to have hurt the East where knowledge was transmitted orally or by word of mouth.

With the advent of computers and online learning, the flow of knowledge has taken another hit.

Spell checkers and auto-correct have coaxed us into letting our guard down. As Joe says, we no longer care where our fingers fall on the keyboard and we no longer keep an eye on spelling mistakes in our writing, believing that the spell checker is there to flag all those errors. So much trust in a squiggly little line!

This may work to a certain extent but increased dependency can lead to a situation when our common Joe produces more errors than the number of lines of his text, and some of those errors could be produced by auto-correct itself.

A large chunk of text with so many errors would be difficult to clean up. One way to avoid such a situation is to keep an eye on the errors and clean the text as you go.

A better way is to follow Pratap Singh.

Pratap Singh got rid of his computer and spell checker because he wanted to overcome the laziness which has penetrated our world. Typewriters require users to be more alert and attentive towards their key presses and word choices. A mistyped word demands immediate correction to avoid the difficulty of finding it again. A poorly used word may require a re-write.

Computers, equipped with spell checkers, do not impose such discipline and instead promotes sloth, which is one of the seven deadly sins.

To mimic a typewriter setup, you can stop using the spell checker and, especially, auto-correct. Write your draft in a notepad file believing that you don’t have a spell checker, and then finally run it through spell checker at the end. This will reduce both the number of errors produced and the effort to remove them.

Crucially, this would take you to the pre-auto correct generation era, where people would not write ‘pubic health’ when they meant ‘public health,’ an error that a Pakistani newspaper ended up printing in thousands of its copies. Some newsrooms tell new subeditors to never use the word public in a headline, and prefer ‘govt’ or ‘government instead, for exactly this reason. And then, woe betide the subeditor in a rush who kept getting our President’s name wrong: Zaradari.

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