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Grad. Studies Home

Grammar and Spell Check: Uses and Abuses

Using the Spell Check

The first rule is to USE the spell check. The second rule is not to waste time using it prematurely. Why bother to check the spelling of words in a rough draft when you may delete those words as you revise?. Get in the habit of running the spell check as the last thing you do before sending your final draft to the printer.

Decide what features of the spell check work best for you. You can change spelling options in Microsoft Word by going to TOOLS on the menu line, clicking on Options and then on Spelling and Grammar. Consider these two important options:

  1. Check Spelling as you Type: If this is selected, you will see a dotted red line under any potentially misspelled word. Those red lines can sometimes be counterproductive when you are just brainstorming or writing a first draft, because stopping to check a word might interrupt the flow of ideas. It's often a good idea to turn this feature off during the early stages of writing and then turn it back on when you've reached the final version and are ready to proofread.

  2. Always Suggest Correction: If this is selected, you can right-click on any word underlined with the red dotted line and get the computer's suggestion for possible correct spelling. It's a good shortcut and useful to have selected in your options.

Remember: the spell check won't tell you if you've typed "it's" when you should have typed "its," or "there" when you needed "their." The best way to check for this type of commonly confused word is to keep a list of the ones you tend to misspell and then use the FIND command to take you quickly through the document so that you can check the context and make sure you chose the correct word for that context.

Using the Grammar Check

The first rule is don't rely on the grammar check alone to check your grammar!

You are much smarter than the computer in this instance. While the grammar check can find some grammar problems, it is just as likely to highlight something as being a grammar error when it really is correct. This happens especially in complex sentences, causing you to make unnecessary--sometimes incorrect--changes. Moreover, it will not --repeat, not--find all the grammar errors. Only you can do that. So run the grammar check if you must, but know that once you've done so your proofreading chores are by no means over.

As with the spell check, you can customize your grammar check to make it work for you. From the menu, go to TOOLS, then Options, then Spelling and Grammar, and consider these options:

  1. Check grammar as you type. When selected, you will see dotted green lines under possible grammar errors. We recommend strongly that you turn this off, at least until you're ready for the final proofreading. Since it can call your attention to things as unimportant (in early drafts)) as an extra space after a comma, it tends to do more harm than good.

  2. Check grammar with spelling. Turn this off if you just want to run a quick last-minute spell check.

  3. Show readability statistics. Turn this off. Readability statistics don't show much about good writing, since the computer can't judge style, it can only count letters and words. Don't be tempted to write longer sentences or use bigger words just because you think you should raise your readability level.

  4. Writing style: You can set this to look for grammar only or to look for grammar and style. Each option comes with a long list of items it will check for. You can pick and choose. To check just for one thing, like the use of the first person pronouns (I, me, we, our) for instance, you can deselect everything but that and run a grammar check.

Get to know your grammar check options and, if you must use the grammar check, at least set it up so that you are using it when it's useful and checking only for the things that you want to check for. And remember: running the grammar check does not, will not and cannot substitute for your own careful proofreading.