Some people (myself included) feel that the world is overrun with technology. On the one hand, it lets us spread conspiracy theories like wildfire, snipe at our friends(?) on Facebook, and waste time playing video games on our phones.

On the other hand, technology has helped us make great scientific breakthroughs, keep friends and family in touch, and even given us things like spell-check, which has helped people like me with they’re writing.

Oops. Their writing.

Which is one of the fallibilities of spell-check.

But first, some housekeeping. I feel the need to address that burning question “Is it “spellcheck” or “spell check”?

According to Meriam-Webster’s online dictionary, it’s neither. It’s “spell-check” with a hyphen (which makes me wonder if maybe they just enjoy hyphenating words).

The good lexicographers at m-w.com go on to point out that “variants” of “spell-check,” which entered into use around 1983, are “spellcheck” and “spell check,” so there you are, it’s clear as mud. It could be any of them, though they like the hyphenated version best.

Just in case you’re not confused enough about this whole spelling of “spell-check” thing, they go on to point out that “spelling checker” is (obviously) two words, while “spellchecker” is one word with “spell-checker” as a variant. OK, enough about that.

So why didn’t spell-check catch my mistake in the second paragraph? Because spell-check won’t catch homophones, since its job is to catch misspelled words, not real words that are used incorrectly. (Bonus trivia: The most misspelled word in Maine is “Connecticut.”)

But we all make mistakes, right? Yup, and not just you and me either. Here are a few examples of spelling mistakes made by some of the best in the business whose slip-ups wouldn’t have been caught by spell-check, even if it had existed back when they were writing.

In “The Good Earth,” Pearl Buck describes a wall on which “small mat sheds clung like flees (fleas) to a dog’s back.”

In “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain wrote that Huck took a bag “and ripped a hole in the bottom of it with a was. ” He probably meant “saw.”

Even our hyphen-happy friends at Merriam-Webster mess up occasionally, like the time in 1935 when they added the new word “dord” to their “New International Dictionary.” The problem is “dord” was not a word. What they had meant to add was “D or d,” as a symbol for density. The mistake stayed in their dictionary for five years.

In “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” J.K. Rowling has “1 wand” appearing twice on a list of things that Harry thinks he’s going to need.

And then there’s the 1631 edition of the “King James Bible,” which tells its readers “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Most of them were burned.

Obviously, the best way to avoid spelling and other errors in your writing is to proofread, proofread, proofread. As novelist James Michener once said, ”I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.”

Now that I think about it, that Harry Potter example might not be a mistake after all; sometimes I feel like I need two magic wands to get through the day.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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