In Which a Young Novelist of Feeling Makes Certain Confessions
Earlier this week, I was preparing to send a near-final draft of my novel, The Maker of Swans, to my editor. Before doing so, I performed a series of checks designed to ensure that the manuscript was free of errors. I’m fastidious about this sort of thing at the best of times, but at this stage of the process my rituals of textual hygiene occupy that shadowy region between rigorous professional habits and extravagant coping mechanisms.
In any case, one of the rituals I perform before sending out the manuscript is something I call a ‘flushed spellcheck’. That is, before running the spellcheck, I disable the custom dictionary to which I have added all the words that the spellchecker has–legitimately or otherwise–failed to recognise.
I use Microsoft Word, and its British English dictionary, while perfectly adequate for most purposes, doesn’t appear to have any grand ambitions in the matter of comprehensiveness. It’s pocked with missing entries–lacunae that are sometimes defensible (the OED also favours tranquillity, though tranquility, as is evident to all but the most depraved of sensibilities, is infinitely more graceful), but more often merely scandalising (the use of stockinged may attract certain criticisms, but whimsical novelty isn’t one of them).
To suppress the false positives that the spellchecker would otherwise report (I can think of almost nothing so nakedly inflammatory as a wavy red line under a refined but blameless lexical item), it becomes necessary to add these exotic word choices to a custom dictionary as they arise. The decision to click on Add to dictionary is usually arrived at with a certain brisk confidence (oh, come on, Word–what are you like?), but over the course of a hundred thousand words or so, there are going to be some marginal calls. There are going to be occasions when one acts not out of rectitude, but out of simple expediency (oh, just fuck off, Word).
In this way, a corpus of exceptions is accumulated that the spellchecker dutifully refers to each time it is invoked. This is a generally satisfactory state of affairs, but as one approaches the completion of a longish piece of work, a certain waning of confidence is perhaps inevitable. What if there were times when my judgement wavered? What if there were times when I told Word to fuck off not because I was filled with righteous rage at its latest assault on the sanctity of the language, but because I really needed a wee?
It is in such circumstances that the need for the flushed spellcheck arises. While disabling my custom dictionary the other evening, I took a few moments to scroll through it. At one level (the important and sane level), it’s just ephemeral metadata, of no conceivable interest to anyone but me. At another level, though–and this is the level I actually inhabit–it’s a fascinating artefact, like an ice core drilled from my own accreted language. It’s a sample that has been excised by means of more or less arbitrary criteria, yet one which manages to be oddly revealing about the novel from which it was extracted; about its diction (that starchy proprietress; that pleasureless, with its effortful suggestion of languor), about its aspirations (Poussin and Fauré–well, excuse me) and about its author’s weakness for certain stylistic tics (that excruciating concordance of un- words).
Still, I present it here in the spirit of philological candour, and in the hope that this kind of mortification may lead to some infinitesimal self-improvement. Make of it what you will.
5 thoughts on “What the Spellchecker Saw”
[…] What the spellchecker saw. […]
Comprehensiveness is not only not an objective of spell-checking dictionaries, it is often an anti-objective. Suer is a legitimate word (it’s in the OED both in the sense of ‘pursuer’ and in the sense of ‘one who sues’), but 99 times out of 100 it will be a typo for user and so should be flagged. Similarly, the existence of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (rhymes with “worse”) doesn’t override the high probability that it’s a misspelling of “Pierce” (and so it duly gets a red underline in my browser window as I type, which I duly ignore).
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[…] the course of writing a particular book. This may sound unpromising, but as I tried to explain in my original post, these word lists are fascinating artefacts of the creative process; they offer, I think, a […]
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