Internet, Web, and Other Post-Watergate Concerns

Q. I get so tired of reading about writers using their “spell-checkers” on their computers. Surely they mean “spelling-checkers” don’t they? I’ve always thought that only wizards use “spell-checkers”—what do you think? I love CMOS—read it all the time—I start browsing and I can’t stop! Thanks again for a great resource!

A. I would guess that the menus in word-processing programs and their need for brevity in order to ensure that an intelligible portion of a phrase can be displayed are probably partly to blame for the ubiquitous phrases “spell checker” and “spell check.” Microsoft Word’s help menu (for version 9/2000), for example, lists the following:

Ways to check spelling

Customize spell checking

Troubleshoot spell checking

Check spelling

But to their credit, once you select either of the middle two, the actual documentation has an expanded title, as follows:

Customize spelling and grammar checking

Troubleshoot spelling and grammar checking

So it appears that someone at Microsoft at least partly agrees with you, expanding “spell” to “spelling” when there’s ample room.

WordPerfect (version 9) lists “Spell Checker” in its Tools menu. But to their credit, in their documentation they seem only to use the phrase when referring specifically to a menu item (and exact nomenclature is important in such settings) or to the title of a small dialog box.

Older versions of WordPerfect, such as WordPerfect 5.1, used “spell” as a verb meaning roughly “to check the spelling in a document.”

Beyond any of those theories of how people have been influenced to say something as ungrammatical as “spell check,” I wouldn’t know where to begin. But if you ask me how to spell check, I can tell you: c-h-e-c-k.