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Writing for science? Beware of these spellchecker hiccups

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You’ve added the final touches to your scientific manuscript / presentation / thesis. You’ve even run the spellchecker and grammar checker and everything seems perfect. There are no little green or red squiggles under the text. Now it’s ready to submit or present – or is it? What could be wrong? If you read my last article about my favorite scientific spell/grammar-checker failures, then you will know that it is definitely NOT time to submit just yet!

That’s because, despite your careful checks, it’s possible that your manuscript still contains several spelling and grammatical errors. In particular, the grammar checker has limited usefulness for long or highly technical sentence constructs, which are common in science writing.

It’s not unusual for grammatical errors to slip through (false negatives) and correct grammar to be flagged up as an error (false positives). In general, the spellchecker is more reliable, but it’s not infallible. For example, it only detects actual spelling mistakes; it cannot detect a correctly spelled word that you have used incorrectly.

Spelling and grammar hiccups happen more often that you might think… Here are some of the most common reasons:

1. Real (but wrong) word typos

Sometimes a slip of the finger on the keyboard will result in a ‘real’, i.e. correctly spelled, word being inserted into the text – just not the one you meant to use. This alternative word will not be detected by the spellchecker.

A good example of this from my favorites list is: “Medium containing 10% fatal bovine serum”. “Fatal” should, of course read “fetal”, but since fatal is a correct word, and the grammar checker has no idea whether bovine serum is fatal, then no red or green squiggles will alert you.

2. Incorrect English usage

Sometimes authors express their ideas using sentences that are grammatically perfect and contain correctly spelled words, but are not correct English. These will not be detected by spellcheckers or grammar checkers.

A good example of this from my favorites list is: “The basic body plan and organ primordial of the future mouse are established.” There are no spelling errors here and no obvious grammar problems but, although it is obvious what the author means, this is simply not a phrase that is used in English. A better phrase would be “developing mouse”, for example.

3. Systematic grammar errors

For authors whose first language is not English, it is also common for systematic grammatical errors related to the author’s native language to be introduced into the text. For example, the incorrect use of articles – sometimes these are picked up by the grammar checker, but often they are not.

These are not very comical, so they didn’t make my favorites list, but one example of a systematic grammar error is “(The) Importance of oestrogen biosynthesis in endometriosis is indicated by the substantial clinical and epidemiological evidence, such as ……”

4. The author has not spotted an error because they’re too close to the text

This happens because authors know exactly what they’re trying to say and so their eyes skim over and automatically correct small errors in the text. We’ll talk more about this in later articles on self-editing.

5. Red-squiggle blindness

Many scientific terms are flagged up by the spellchecker because they are not in the conventional dictionary. Don’t just leave them like that. Make sure you “teach” your spellchecker those words (right click on the word and choose the “Add to dictionary” option). If you don’t, then you’ll just get used to the red squiggles being there and miss typos in the besquiggled scientific terms. You might also miss real, flagged-up typos in that forest of squiggles.

Here is an example–can you spot the real spelling errors?

Writing for science? Beware of these spellchecker hiccups

So, what can you do about this? Well, there are a couple of options, depending on your experience and how much time you have. The first is to give yourself plenty of time for a writing project so that you can put the document aside, get on with something else for a week or two, and then go back and read it critically. You’ll be surprised how much this can help to improve the text in general.

However, if you don’t have time for this, then you can ask someone else (either a colleague or a professional editor like me) to look over it carefully for you. Only when this final check is done can you confidently release your document for scrutiny by the wider scientific community.

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