The Cupertino Effect: Spell-Check and Consistency

5 Dec

Spell-checkers are either the bane of an editor’s existence or a lifesaver, depending, largely, on the spelling ability of the writer submitting a story. When I worked on one writer’s lessons at a guitar magazine, I would open the file, replace “excercise” with “exercise,” and then begin editing. Thank god for ctrl+H.

Benjamin Zimmer, in the Language Log, posted semi-recently about the “Cupertino Effect,” and linked to his more in-depth post (“When Spellcheckers Attack”) on the Oxford University Press USA blog. In a knee-jerk response, I took offense to the name of the phenomenon (Why not “The Redmond Effect”?), but he explains that it refers to older spell-checkers offering “Cupertino” as the suggested correct spelling of “cooperation.” The hyphenated “co-operation” was considered the true spelling.

What I find more alarming is that, when I tested this in my version of MS Word, it found both “co-operation” and “cooperation” to be spelled correctly. Now, technically, they are both correct. It’s a style issue. Whether to hyphenate or not depends on the context, the style rules chosen by the publication — sort of the editorial version of relative morality.

In a perfect world (for editors), you’d be able to choose AP vs. Chicago style or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th vs. American Heritage 4th in your spell-check, and it would apply those rules. But that’s a level of sophistication that most people don’t need.

To put it bluntly, spell-check exists to make us not look stupid. It is designed to catch the mistakes that the average human misses, to think about details that most people don’t care about or even realize exist. After all, who, besides editors, cares about a serial comma or which, if any, prepositions should be capitalized in a title? To communicate functionally, we don’t all need an editor’s precision. (Which is good, because I like my job and don’t want you all getting into my kitchen, so to speak.)

Allowing two conflicting styles to coexist (co-exist?) in the same document defeats the purpose of a spell-check. Consistency is a key element in making writing appear smarter because it helps the reader’s brain focus on the words and meaning, not the spellings or treatment. To enforce consistency, spell-checkers should find one spelling correct and an alternate spelling incorrect (and then suggest the correct spelling, not a town in Silicon Valley).

Style points: how to spell “spell-checker”:

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th: spell-checker
  • American Heritage, 4th: spell checker, with spellchecker as an alternate spelling

(Thanks, vinayd, for pointing me to the Language Log. Stamp image by itchys.)

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