It seems that ‒ whether intentionally or not ‒ spell-checking software in web browsers and productivity suites heavily influence our use of language. For example: in drafting a document, I found that my spelling dictionary did not include the word unbeknownst. The average user would likely take that as an indication of the word's obsolescence or nonexistence.

Is there some discussion in the linguistics world around this impact and the effect it may have on the field?

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    Obsolescence, or nonexistence. Jul 5, 2011 at 20:33
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    I'm aware of the word's existence; my intent was to give another view of the impression one might get when using such software if they type intuitively but not necessarily knowingly - as opposed to thinking the word was once used, rather thinking that it was never conceived. Jul 5, 2011 at 20:57
  • Ahh... sorry about that. Quite right--I'll edit to reflect.
    – Bryan Agee
    Jul 5, 2011 at 20:59
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    I, for one, refuse to truckle to the tyranny of spell-checking software. If it finds a typo for me, fine; but I won't have it preventing me from using words or spellings I know to be not only acceptable but absolutely perfect for what I wish to express. And as for grammar-checkers like the one in MS Word ... well, they can keep their opinions to themselves. Sentence fragment my ass.
    – Robusto
    Jul 5, 2011 at 23:08

3 Answers 3


I would see this as an extension of the branch of linguistics called metalexicography which for decades has been examining people's use and perception of dictionaries and related works.

Practitioners of the field have long since noted phenomena which I think aren't in essence any different with modern electronic dictionaries/spellcheckers, whereby dictionary users believe that dictionaries are "seen as the repository of the linguistic 'truth' as opposd to actual usage" (Sledd and Ebbitt 1962)" or where there are "cases where dictionaries were used as evidence in a court of justice". Béjoint, via other authors, cites various examples, including cases where dictionaries were consulted by legislative bodies to decide whether a continental breakdast counted as 'board', or whether a T-shirt was classed as a 'souvenir'. The same author discusses how dicitonaries have also been seen as guardians of moral standards, with various words with sexual connotations appearing surprisingly late in dictionaries (p. 125).

If you look at people's use of word processor dictionaries and electronic dictionaries in general, I think what we're seeing is essentially an extension of this phenomenon. In times gone by, people would have worried a great deal that "The Dictionary" that they happened to have on their shelf happened not to include a particular word; now they instead worry that Microsoft Word puts a squiggly red line under it. And there are even still cases where users expect Microsoft Word's spellchecker to be some kind of bastion of morality: a glitch a few years ago, whereby the French word "anti-stress" was replaced by "anti-arabe", was not treated by some users as being a boring technical bug.


I have a tendency to add the extraneous "u" as per English English (rather than American English). So colour, honour, dialogue, favourite, etc. Nearly all of these are marked as misspelled, even though the alternate spellings are recognized, if not encouraged.

So yes, I think that people who rely heavily on spellcheckers are forced to conform to the spellcheckers' (spellchequers'?) dictionary. On the whole, I don't think this is bad: the average writer isn't going to benefit from using a 10-dollar word that was considered too esoteric for the spellchecker. And anyone who is capable of using the word correctly will be able to confirm the spelling.

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    +1 purely because I'm a Brit! Even if you consider those extra u's to be 'extraneous', I just have to upvote you for having the tendency! Jul 5, 2011 at 21:53
  • Sounds like you need to change your computer's locale settings.
    – user1635
    Jul 5, 2011 at 23:11
  • I'm the same, @FumbleFingers : when I see a word which I suspect is marked as wrong because if its American-ness, I spell it in American first, make sure the red line goes away, and then correct it to English (when it comes back). And life is too short to argue with operating systems. Nov 28, 2015 at 13:10
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    @Dan: I often do the same myself! But speaking as one who's successfully switched to thinking in Centigrade rather than Farenheit, I think one should at least try to move with the times. So we must realise/recognize than some BrE spellings are simply lost causes in the long run. (But I'll be hanging on to colour 'til the bitter end! :) Nov 28, 2015 at 13:30
  • I think you're right about them being lost in the long run. Already many of the more obscure differences are going in younger people, I notice. You know what Keynes said about the long run: duckduckgo.com/?q=keynes+long+run Nov 28, 2015 at 19:36

Well somebody has to be the authority and assuming the word lists are sourced from decent dictionaries I don't see a problem. It would be interesting to look for errors in the lists becoming more popular than the 'correct' spelling.

One interesting aspect though is the spell checker in some systems (particularly Google Chrome I'm using) seem to use spanning algorithms to come up with regularised versions of irregular spellings. I wonder if these will become popular as the software essentially cleans up English? There have been numerous attempts to fix English over the years with more or less success (Mr Webster) but once it takes effort to undo the corrections back to the old 'odd' spelling then laziness might win.

I have had to accept a lot more words being Americani S ed just because I can't always switch the spelling dictionary.

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    In reality, I think over the years, the only attempt to fix English that had anything more than 'no success whatsoever' was Noah Webster's. And that was pretty limited anyway - the US ignored much of what he proposed, and even a couple of hundred years later I don't notice us Brits having taken much of it on board. Jul 5, 2011 at 22:00

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