Feet, Feat, Fete: The Deceptive Allure of Spell-checking

By Barry Willis

Feet, feat, and fete: English is riddled with homophones, words that are pronounced alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. In this case: your pedal extremities, an achievement, and a celebration—all concepts so wildly divergent that it would be difficult to mistake one for the other, unless you are relying on your word processor’s spell-check function to make sure you have used the right one. It was an amazing feat and It was an amazing fete are as different from each other as they can possibly be—but sound exactly alike when spoken.

English is not the only language with homophones. The French word tour has two distinct meanings—one, a meandering journey, as in Le Tour de France and the other, a tower, as in Le Tour d’Eiffel, the Eiffel Tower. The Russian word pol can mean variously half, floor, or sex, depending on context understood organically by native speakers. Because English is a blend of languages, it offers an enormous vocabulary and amazing opportunity for nuance, but these benefits bring many potential pitfalls that aren’t always identified by spell-checking programs.

In spoken language, we gather meaning by context. Spell-checkers have some primitive contextual capabilities but are no substitute for astute human copy editors. Blind-faith reliance on spell-checkers can yield comical results, especially when combined with voice-recognition writing programs. This headline actually scrolled across the screen during a CNN news broadcast: “HSS Launching Testing Sites in COVID-19 Hots Pots,” and this one appeared in a July 2020 Marin Independent Journal story about the importance of fire prevention efforts: “Hire fire danger in coming months.” Human editors were asleep at the wheel in both cases.

Spell checkers can miss transposed letters in closely-related words: post and pots may not be flagged as wrong, even if they are. Be sure that you want tip instead of top—The tip of the iceberg and the top of the iceberg aren’t interchangeable. And be sure that the homophone you select is the proper one: right, rite, write, and wright may all pass unnoticed by your spell checker, even though the misuse of any will leap out at an editor. Machines have made the writer’s life easier in many ways, but there’s still no substitute for a keen eye and an alert mind.


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