Why does Google spell better than Word's spell-checker?

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I’m not the best speller in the world. I guess I’m pretty good compared to most people, but any child who has gotten to the second round of a spelling bee could clean the floor with me.

What really saved my career as a journalist is the invention of spell check. Today I only have to get close to the correct word, and Microsoft Word, the program I mostly use to write, will suggest the proper spelling.

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On a separate note, I think spell check has also made folks a bit lazy when it comes to spelling. Case in point, back in college a fellow journalist who was also a bad speller told me his plan to get better. Whenever he ran across a word he couldn’t spell, he took the time to look it up in the dictionary. After a year, he figured he would be much better at spelling and could leave the giant paper tome behind. And for him, it worked.

I however, came to rely on spell check. The red underline would flag misspelled words and I, having a modicum of spelling prowess, could select the correct word from the list. That worked, but I didn’t really learn anything.

My biggest problem with Word is that there are some words that simply trip it up. When writing about temperature for our many rugged reviews, I always put “Farenheight,” which Word thinks should be changed to “Fare height.” That doesn’t help at all.

However, when the same misspelled word is pasted into Google, it says, “showing results for Fahrenheit instead.” There are quite a few other words that confuse Word but not Google. They are not difficult to find.

I have to wonder why Google is so smart when it comes to figuring out what word a user wants to use. My guess is that the database Google is pulling from is so massive that it’s probably seen a lot of the same basic spelling mistakes. There are probably a lot of people who have wanted to search for Fahrenheit but typed in “Farenheight” instead. Nice to know that I’ve got company.

You would think it would be simple for word processors to use the same type of technology to improve their accuracy, but I suppose that would involve capturing data from their users and then making the connections between common mistakes and the accurate spelling.

I thought that is what spell check was supposed to do, but instead I think it just matches the misspelling with words that are somewhat close to what you’ve typed. And Google obviously goes beyond that to associate common mistakes with actual words.

Although I think adding user-mistakes to Word would work, I won’t hold my breath. Privacy advocates would say that a word processor that does something like that is overreaching, even though Google does it and a lot more.

So I’ve come up with my own solution to my spelling problem. I’ve purchased a huge dictionary, and every time I don’t know how to spell a word, I’m going to look it up, just like my friend in college did. That book will be an albatross around my neck until I become a proficient speller. Then I won’t care how accurate the spell-check software is, because I’ll be better.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Mon, Jan 26, 2015 Martin

I occasionally write competitive analyses of Pokémon for smogon.com, so I have made special note of learning grammar rules to reduce the amount of editing required (with my grammar being near-perfect at this point), and it is time that I pointed out a common misconception about MS Word: it has better grammar (not spelling) than Google. Anyone who says that MS Word has a better grammar checker than Google is sorely mistaken; MS Word suffers from the inability to identify when to use the correct grammar, with a particular monstrosity being its inability to identify when a semicolon should be used over a comma in instances where the sub-clause is embedded. It commonly points me out on 'comma splicing' even though my grammar is correct in the instance (right this minute it is telling me to change a comma to a semicolon despite a semicolon making no sense in the context ("It was difficult to get an accurate measurement of the colour of the solution at each interval I measured*,* leading to high levels of human error, but it also meant that I was limited to measuring to a precision of 0.2pH." (the comma it is trying to change is surrounded by asterisks))). This is a problem which google has, but it is far less extreme than that on MS Word, but that is because it is a piece of software with a predetermined algorithm, except that, unlike MS Word, it is one which is constantly improving itself through user submissions and the vast database at Google. There is only reason to use MS Word over Google Docs nowadays on the basis that Google Docs is better in literally every aspect of what it does: hell it can even spell the names of any Pokémon introduced prior to Pokémon X and Y correct - try getting Microsoft Word to do that - and it allows co-writing and faster peer review due to its 'share and allow editing' function without allowing any old bozo to edit it like would happen if you are putting a file on a network. You don't even need a USB to transport it around as it is all stored online. Microsoft Word is extremely outdated, mediocre software that should only be used if you lack a usable internet connection (of which cases are few-and-far-between).

Mon, Dec 8, 2014 Utsav Arora India

Google is much smarter than any word processing tool. It uses a series of Algorithms to get you what you are looking for. These have been invented by the smartest kids in the technology industry and each of these would have gone through rigorous testing. Your search depends on a lot of factors which we can never know because Google is not the No.1 search engine in the world because it gives out its secrets.

Thu, Jul 31, 2014 jimmy dell

I have had the same problem as the author with spelling my entire life, which has now reached 70 years. In the past I've used MS-Word based tools and encountered the same problems. The MS spell-check and suggestions are at times ridiculous, time consuming and frustrating. Enter Google Docs and their excellent spell check about 3 years ago. Contrary to the author's experience I've found that Google has made me a better speller, still not great, but better. If you take the time to notice that the checker has again caught the same word you take the time to find your error. I recently tried using MS-Word which brought me to this posts title. Google should offer to help Microsoft, I sense a deal here.

Mon, Dec 16, 2013 Saru Dono

I have recently found that Google has an error every time with past tense, present tense, and future tense. I typed in "When did James Monroe's parents die?" and it corrected it to "When did James Monroe's parents died?" This has happened to me many times on various occasions, and I do think that grammar (other than spelling) is Word's better side.

Sun, Sep 23, 2012 Mike's Road Trip Seattle

I too am a writer for a the travel blog, http://www.MikesRoadTrip.com and I get so frustrated with Word, Mac Mail and other programs that can't spell as well as Google. I always get what I want from Google, but as you eluded to...often Word gets tripped up. I'm a terrible speller, but I know when I see the work spelled correctly. I would think by now programs like Word would be using a search engine database for their spell check.

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