Suggested improvements to Microsoft Word’s spell-checker

A few days ago, James wrote about the articles the Seattle Times published about our Natural Language Group and the Office spell-checkers. One of these articles was encouraging the Seattle Times readers to suggest improvements (What words would you add to the Microsoft spell-checker?). It is very interesting to read what our users consider pain points. The following suggestions from one of the readers (RogerKni) are interesting:

Here are my four suggested improvements to Word's spell-checker:

1. Give the user the option to flag rare words with an orange wavy line. An example would be “manger,” which 99% of the time is a misspelling of “manager.” Or “fro”: usually a misspelling of “for.” Or “whey” for “why.” Allow users to delete or add individual items to the Word-provided list of rarities.

2. Automatically add the apostrophized version of any noun added to a dictionary.

3. Add a “picky-mode” option, which one could turn on to get the preferred spelling of certain words. Currently, if there are two options for spelling a word, Word flags neither. That’s usually what’s wanted—the user doesn’t want to be harassed about a minor issue. But sometimes, as when publishing a book, the user wants to pick the best spelling. (Second-best spellings could be flagged with a wavy purple line.)

4. Give the user the option to tell Word to aggressively correct misspellings with what it thinks is the Best Match. Some would prefer this to Word’s cautious policy of merely flagging such words in red and making the user choose the correction.

In past releases, we looked into solving the problem described in Suggestion (2) for our English users. The solution presupposes an identification of (singular) nouns. We could ask users to do so for us, opting into the ‘s form for words like Palin (Palin’s), and not for the plural noun subproblems (*subproblems’s), the adjective semicontinuous or dermatoglyphics (* dermatoglyphics’s – see my colleague Mari Olsen’s post on possessives and apostrophes) . Of course we could also make guesses based on our knowledge of words that we have (continuous is an adjective; problems is a plural noun), but the computation would have to be weighed against the user benefit.

Suggestion (1) is in fact already covered in a large number of cases in Office 2007 (albeit not with an orange wavy line: we used a blue wavy line to signal contextual mistakes, which have been mentioned on several occasions on this blog). Look at the following screenshots, which show that the contextual speller in Office 2007 is able to flag words like “manger” or “fro” used in the wrong contexts:


Note, too, that users have the possibility of deleting words from the Office speller lexicon. We will come back to this issue in a future post (if you are impatient, type “exclude dictionary” or “exclusion dictionary” in the Help file). You may use that feature to exclude the non-preferred variants (of course, this is an individual decision you need to make: we cannot impose your own preferred spelling onto everyone).

Last but not least, suggestion (4) also exists: it is called internally AutoReplace. This feature “aggressively” corrects misspellings with what it thinks is the best match, as is suggested by RogerKni. Try typing “infomation”, for instance and you will see that Word automatically corrects it to information as you as you hit the space bar. To activate that feature, go to the big Office button in the top-left corner of your Office application, click on Word Options, then on Proofing, then on AutoCorrect Options. At the bottom of the screen, you will see the option “Automatically use suggestions from the spelling checker”. Tick the box as in the screenshot below:



I hope you will find these tips useful.

-- Thierry Fontenelle (Program Manager)