Homophone Errors and Context Spell Check

I came across a homophone error in a document I was editing recently. Rather, the error had been invisible to me, the so-called editor of the document, but someone else spotted it immediately.

This is the third most embarrassing way to discover an error in a document. I’m not even sure what to call them. A typo seems to be an excusable error, a cough while reading aloud or a stray artifact produced by the generation of text. A homophone error on other hand seems like a mistake in word selection. This error signifies a lack of education, or a learning disability such as dyslexia or ADD, or laziness.

The second most embarrassing way to discover an error in a document is to have it discovered it in a printed copy of your work. The first most embarrassing way is to have it pointed out by a reviewer of your work. Publishing is an act of public humiliation. A masochist is at the heart of a writer.


There was the word “pallet” on one page and another the word “palate” on another. A pallet means one of those wooden things that boxes get stacked on and are carried around by forklifts. A palate, on the other hand, is the either the roof of your mouth of your personal sense of taste.

These errors are embarrassing because of the things these errors signify. One of the not so secret, secrets of people, who have too much education in composition or philosophy, the so-called humanities, is that they are invariably poor spellers. People who choose to write, I think, tend to be particularly bad at generating acceptable text in a very basic manner. Can you imagine hiring Dostoevsky as your administrative assistant? Melville at a corporate communications desk writing press releases? Emily Dickenson pumping out office procedures? Is it any wonder that Kafka only considered a slim volume worth of his work publishable?

Would an insurance company keep Wallace Stevens employed today?

Mangled sentence syntax and mulched spelling often signify to me maybe a learning disability or ADD and laziness but also a person who will think in unexpected directions. These unexpected directions do not lend themselves to good spelling.

And so after this incident I began to hunt for homophone errors. I found “peak” for “peek,” and “stabile” for “stable.” Stabile: an abstract sculpture made of wire, metal, or other materials and attached to fixed supports. Stable: steady and not liable to change. I had fastidiously run spell check. I printed the document onto actual paper and read it out.

I suspect that spell check, in fact contributes to an increase in homophone errors. In looking for current error rates in newspapers I found a study that puts the rate at around four percent (The Vanishing Newspaper, by Philip Meyer and thanks to this entry in the First Draft.

In the case of homophone errors, spell check actually helps to conceal the error because it will turn a word that has been mistyped into a word that matches a recognized word. This process is independent of the context of the correction.

These seemed to be such mechanical errors that a computer program could quickly and efficiently find them.

I began to think that I could program my own. I would create a homophone error database with each entry listed, the part of speech associated with it, and then an engine would read the text of the document, parse the sentence structure, identify the part of speech where the error occurred, and then run through each contextual-error with a dialogue box to suggest and confirm changes. I sat down on a Saturday morning and got as far as figuring out how to create a macro in Microsoft Word to search and replace from a variable in Visual Basic, and then it occurred to me: the world is a large place and someone has probably already made this program. When I worked for an IT company, they had an axiom that it was always better to buy a program then build in-house because it is cheaper to buy it and support comes with the purchase price. I have never

Even though I personally think 1) textual authority is bogus and 2) spelling is overrated and in fact of a tool for maintaining middle-class hegemony over language. But spelling is, sadly, important for creating authority in the text (as is graphic design) and spelling is a tool for maintaining middle-class hegemony over language.

So in order to put middle-class hegemony in my pocket (where it belongs), I began to hunt for an accurate context-based spell checker.

For a moment thought I found the answer to life’s evils:

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