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.


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