Spell-checker struggles to keep up

May 03, 2009|By HELEN ANNE TRAVIS / St. Petersburg Times

Picture it: Somewhere in a red state, an unhappy woman sits down at her computer and starts brainstorming for her latest chain e-mail against the country's 44th president.

She bangs out ideas on her keyboard: "Barack Obama used stimulus money to tear down a bald eagle sanctuary." "Barack Obama wants to tax grocery-coupon savings."

She stares at the screen, wondering which idea to run with. That's when she notices the squiggles.

Underneath the president's first and last names are Microsoft Office's telltale sign of a misspelled word.

She right clicks. Did she mean "barrack"? the spell-checker wants to know. Another right click, this time on "Obama."

The first word offered is "Osama."

Is Microsoft part of some vast right-wing scheme set to malign the president? The squiggles are Republican red.

No such conspiracy. Her spell-checker is simply out of date.

Keeping up with the latest political candidates, talking heads and celebrities is one of the many challenges facing the Natural Language Group, the gatekeepers of Microsoft's "speller."


For 11 years, the group has been charged with writing the code that dictates which words get the squiggle (actually a technical term).

The group has to stay up to date on new technology, companies and even cutting-edge put-downs.

"Blog" and "Netflix" were added to Office 2007's speller. "Palin" will be included in the next update.

But don't call the Natural Language Group's 50 or so engineers and computational linguistics the authority on the American language.

"We really are not prescriptive," said Mike Calcagno (squiggle!), the Natural Language Group's general manager. "We try to capture the language as it's actually being used and help people write better."

Barack Obama didn't cross most people's radar -- or get mentioned in their Word documents -- until 2004, when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in support of candidate John Kerry (whose last name is also a woman's first name and is thus squiggle-free.)

"Barack" and "Obama" were added to the speller in an update released in spring 2007, when Obama's bid for the presidency was in full swing and the right-wing rumor mill had already started spinning.

Conspirators jumped on the fact that Osama, a relatively common name around the globe, was the first suggestion offered by the spell-checker for Obama, while his middle name, Hussein, was squiggle-free.

The Obama-Osama speller connection reportedly helped fuel the untrue rumor that Obama was a Muslim sworn into the Senate on the Koran. (Remember that chain mail?)

The Microsoft speller comes in 50 languages and is used by Hotmail, Outlook Express and dozens of other programs.

To find new words for the illustrious speller, members of the Natural Language Group analyze blocks of newspaper and Internet text. Hot new words and names are considered for the next software update.

Whenever a Hotmail or Word user participating in Microsoft's customer-improvement program adds a word or name to his or her speller, it also gets flagged for possible inclusion.

"For us, that's the perfect indicator of what people really want," Calcagno said. "If enough people don't want a word squiggled, Microsoft will go along with it."

But some words will never make the speller cut, no matter how many users right click and choose "add to dictionary."

Take "wether," which describes a castrated sheep.

Perfectly legit word, but it's always going to get the squiggle "because so many people mean 'weather,' " Calcagno said.

So the next time you write in a letter that the "wether was absolutely lovely today," and aren't talking about your sheep farm, Microsoft will have your back.

Even if you're Barrack Osama.

Got the squiggles?

To update your Microsoft speller, go to for Office 2007 users; for Office 2003 users.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service

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