Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but that’s what I get for watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre one too many times.
That said, you may find, as a proofreader seeking out work opportunities you often encounter what I call ‘the spell checker defence’:
“What do we need a proofreader for? Microsoft Word checks our spelling and grammar.”
If you’ve read The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course, you’ll know that I’m not entirely opposed to spell checkers (and if you haven’t read The No-Nonsense Proofreading Course... what’s keeping you?). Spell checkers have their place in the proofreader’s toolbox. In the hands of someone other than a proofreader, however, they’re a positive liability.
Now for a statement that might for some seem a little counterintuitive (or just plain wrong):
Spell checkers can’t detect spelling mistakes.
It’s true. They can’t.
What a supposed ‘spell checker’ actually does is highlight words that do not feature in its database. That’s a very different thing. If the word features in its database, Mr Spell Checker just nods and moves on, irrespective of whether or not it’s the right word.
To illustrate just how problematic this can be, let’s take a look at some memorable opening lines.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wipe.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
It was a pleasure to burp.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
The following, from the opening of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, could have provided a particularly illuminating example, but in the interest of good taste, I’ll leave it to you to decide just how horribly wrong things can go if left to the devices of our mindless Mr Spell Checker.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
Not very pleasant, I know.
20 years ago, when I was copywriter and, by default, proofreader at McGee, Parsons and Associates, I was prevented from proofreading a skiwear catalogue by a client who wished to save money. He declared that he had a perfectly good grasp of the English language and could proofread it for himself. Unfortunately, he didn’t proofread it; he handed it over in its vulnerable entirety to his good friend Mr Spell Checker.
In the finished, printed and handsomely bound catalogue a reference to ‘luxurious casual wear’ appeared as ‘luxurious casual sex’.
Oops. To say the least.
After that, as you can imagine, the client in question always considered the modest outlay for the services of an effective proofreader as money very well spent.