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How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Spell Check

The verbiage devoted to the denigration of spell check could fill a dictionary. It’s dumbing down our students. It’s withering our synapses. It exposes the techies behind word-processing programs as ill-educated geek hooligans.  On my syllabi, as on countless other syllabi, a separate paragraph is devoted to two simple instructions:

Do not use spell check. Do not use grammar check.

These commands, of course, go unheeded. The fact is that I use spell check, sometimes by choice—who wants to be embarrassed by a blooper?—and sometimes when forced to because I have used so many peculiar words that Word refuses to process further words until I have checked my spelling up to this point.

To make matters worse, or more fun, we now have smartphones and tablets that finish words for us. Here, at the next-to-last frontier, is where I decided to stop complaining and enjoy the show. It began with my desire to thank a fellow writer who had bestowed a warm comment on my forthcoming book. “HUUUGE  thanks!” was what I wanted to email him from my new iPad. When I finished tapping out the message and glanced up to proofread it (remember that arcane exercise?), I found that the program’s autocorrect function had generously corrected my expansive appreciation to “JUJUBE thanks!” Jujubes! I was struck with the memory of them, those colorful jellied nuggets with the slight depression in the top of their squat cylinders, where you could put the tip of your tongue momentarily to taste the fake grape before transferring to your back teeth to mash and get the gel stuck in your molars. What a lovely sort of thanks, Jujube thanks. How inventive of my software, how apt. I wanted immediately to coin the phrase, to witness countless grateful emailers write to each other, “Jujube thanks for the e-card!” “Jujube thanks for walking my dog!”

Such has not been the mode by which phrases are coined, but so what? Relying on spell check and its sibling autocorrect, my fiction students have staged countless scenes of family quarrel in the dinning room. Ignoring how a college student can have failed to learn the spelling of “dining,” let’s consider: the dinning room, where families din at one another every evening. Or there’s the scene with the boyfriend who keeps starring at his new girlfriend, amazed by his luck. I love that—I see his eyes full of stars, blinking off and on like supernovas, much more interesting than simply staring. Or there’s the theatre program I recently picked up in the Berkshires, in which Shakespeare’s As You Like It had been set in “1920s Paris, scared by war.” (They were right to be scared!) The program also quotes Shakespeare himself, writing that life is “wonderful and yet again wonderful, and after that, out of all hooping!” What a bard the Bard was, to convey wonderfulness as escaping hoops, as something beyond even the hula hoop!

A Web site is now available specifically for these bloopers as they appear in instant messages, but they are fun to chew on for a moment even as we correct our first batch of papers, before we bring out the red pens. Let us gaze with rapture on these butterflies of spell check before we trap them in our conventional nets.

And speaking of letting us, a final spell check coinage to celebrate has already been snatched away. Yes, I am referring to Old Navy’s infamous “Lets Go!” T-shirts, now recalled and replaced by a cute note about grammar police. But “lets go” is not necessarily mispunctuated. “He lets go of the child,” for instance. Perhaps the young people sporting the T-shirt would have inadvertently displayed their libertine tendencies, as folks who like to let go. Or to let go of the Yankees, or the Red Sox, or whatever needs letting go right now. We all understand such impulses, and they should be encouraged. By contrast, how many readers or T-shirt wearers would care to explain what that missing apostrophe stood for? Or what on earth was being commanded by the imperative “Let’s go”?

So stop moaning, at least for a day or two, and celibate.

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