In a nutshell, I think spell checkers are at once an essential part of any proofreader’s toolbox and a positive liability. Like I said, mixed feelings.
Let’s deal with the positive liability aspect first. It’s not the proofreading software itself that is the problem; it’s the user’s perspective. When the user thinks spell checking software can actually spot spelling errors, they’re in trouble. The fact is spell checkers don’t know how to spell. It’s true. Spell checkers only know that a particular word doesn’t exist in their vocabulary. This leaves you open to words that are in the proofreading software’s vocabulary but are being used in entirely in the wrong context. For example, all spell checkers would fail to highlight the following piece of gibberish:
The cloud pimpled the hug gauntlet.
Only the human brain can identify this perfectly grammatical and accurately spelled sentence as utter nonsense.
So, it’s crucial to recognise the limitations of proofreading software before using it.
But once you’ve informed yourself of those limitations, your spell checker becomes incredibly powerful as a labour-saving device. And if you’re looking to make your living from proofreading, then the more proofs you can red-pen your way through per day, the more money you can make.
An effective spell checker can reduce your workload by a considerable amount, sweeping away all those literal errors and obvious grammatical gaffes and enabling you to focus your efforts on the really tricky stuff.
If you use the more advanced types of proofreading software, for example Whitesmoke, you can get through even more work. Whitesmoke not only has a comprehensive, multilingual dictionary, it also employs a complex grammatical algorithm which can highlight grammatical errors that most spell checkers will miss. What’s more, it actively improves your grammar by telling you precisely why a particular piece of phrasing is grammatically unacceptable.
You can take a look at Whitesmoke here. They have some pretty cool free stuff, too, so feel free to skip their sales pitch and make the most of the freebies!
Spell checkers and proofreading software will never replace the keen eye and knowledge of the proofreader but they can provide much needed assistance if you’re fortunate enough to have a hefty workload.