Mastering the Spelling Checker

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Many users become frustrated by Word’s proofing tools, especially the spelling checker. It doesn’t recognize words they know are right, or it insists on recognizing U.S. spellings when they want U.K. spellings, or they want Word to ignore certain kinds of text that aren’t really words at all. They become understandably exasperated with Word’s know-it-all attitude. Who’s in charge here, anyway? The question is, who is to be master,* and it is possible to get the upper hand!

Important Note: This article is primarily applicable to the English spelling checker. Proofing tools for other languages vary considerably.

How Word’s spelling checker works

Solving spell check problems

  Too little spell checking:

  Too much spell checking:

  Problems with the custom dictionary:

How Word checks spelling

Let’s start with an explanation of how Word’s spelling checker works. It is not really very sophisticated. Essentially, Word has a very large (but not infinite) list of words to which it compares each “word” you type. If it doesn’t find a match, it tells you that the word is misspelled. In compounding languages such as German or Dutch, Word's lexicon contains possible components of compound words, and the spelling checker verifies these individual components in much the same way that the English spelling checker looks at the separate parts of hyphenated words.

The lists used by the spelling checker are in “lexicons” (files with the .lex extension) identified by language. For example, Mssp3en.lex is the lexicon for most varieties of English; there is a separate lexicon for Australian English, Mssp3ena.lex. These files are in a proprietary format and cannot be read or edited by users.

The importance of language

The lexicon Word uses depends on what language you have selected for the text. By default, the English edition of Word comes with proofing tools (spelling and grammar checkers, a thesaurus, and a hyphenation file) for English, French, and Spanish (several flavors of each). Other languages are included in other editions. If you want to check spelling and grammar in a language not included with your edition, you must purchase the Office Proofing Tools package for your version of Office. These are usually available from Microsoft only for the most recent version of Office, but currently (2014) it is possible to get them for both Office 2010 and Office 2013. For Office 2010, they are available only in Language Packs costing US$24.95 for each language; get those here. For Office 2013, they can be downloaded free here.

Figure 1. The Language dialog

The language applied to text is selected in the Language dialog. Access it as follows:

  • Word 2003 and earlier: Tools | Language | Set Language

  • Word 2007: Review | Proofing | Set Language

  • Word 2010 and 2013: Review | Language | Language | Set Proofing Language in Word 2010

In Figure 1, note that you can tell from the list in this dialog which languages have proofing tools installed (those with the ABC+check icon). In this example, you could format your text as Estonian, but you would not be able to check spelling or grammar because the proofing tools for Estonian are not available.

Important Note: Although the Language dialog lists numerous varieties of “English,” the only dialects actually supported are Australian, Canadian, U.S., and U.K.; all others will default to one of those four, usually U.K. English. This also applies to other languages: for example, there is no difference between German (Germany) and Germany (Austria); the same lexicon is used for both.

If the language of your text doesn’t match the language of the proofing tools being used, then obviously you won’t get very good results. A common complaint of British users is that Word insists on using U.S. English instead of U.K. English, even though they have selected U.K. English as the default. There are two issues here:

  1. No matter what language you think you have chosen as the default in Word, it may not “stick” unless you have selected the same language as the default in Windows (Control Panel | Regional Options | Input Locales or Control Panel | Regional and Language Options | Languages | Details... or Control Panel | Region and Language | Keyboards and Languages | Change keyboards...). For more on this, see “Set the desired language in Windows.”

  2. Language is a character format that travels with text. If you have selected U.K. English as the language of your document and paste in text formatted as U.S. English, the language at the insertion point (after the pasted text) will be U.S. English, and that will be the language of any text you add at that point. One way to avoid this problem is to paste as unformatted text.

Custom dictionaries

In addition to the built-in “lexicon” in a given language, Word can use user-defined “dictionaries,” to which you can add words of your choice. The default user or custom dictionary is the Custom.dic file. When you right-click on a “misspelled” word and choose Add to Dictionary, this is the file to which it is added. It’s a simple text file that you can edit.

For all practical purposes, you can have as many custom dictionaries as you like (although there is a maximum number, it is very unlikely that you will exceed it). For example, you might have a number of specific technical terms that you use only for certain documents. You could create a separate dictionary for these terms and load it as needed. To create such a new dictionary, follow these instructions:

  1. Open the Spelling & Grammar Options (Word 2003 and earlier) or Proofing Tools Options (Word 2007 and above), as follows:

    • Word 2003: Tools | Options | Spelling & Grammar

Spelling & Grammar Options dialog in Word 2003

Figure 2a. The Spelling & Grammar Options dialog in Word 2003

  • Word 2007: Office Button | Word Options | Proofing

  • Word 2010 and 2013: File | Options | Proofing

Proofing Options dialog in Word 2010

Figure 2b. The Proofing Options dialog in Word 2010

  1. Click on Custom Dictionaries…

  2. In the Custom Dictionaries dialog, click New…

Custom Dictionaries dialog in Word 2003

Figure 3a. The Custom Dictionaries dialog in Word 2003

Custom Dictionaries dialog in Word 2010

Figure 3b. The Custom Dictionaries dialog in Word 2010

  1. In the Create Custom Dictionary dialog, choose a name for your dictionary and click Save.

Create Custom Dictionary dialog in Word 2003

Figure 4a. The Create Custom Dictionary dialog in Word 2003

Create Custom Dictionary dialog in Word 2010

Figure 4b. The Create Custom Dictionary dialog in Word 2010

  1. By default, your new dictionary will be checked in the Custom Dictionaries dialog, which means that the words in it will be added to those in your lexicon file and Custom.dic when Word compares a word you type to its lists.

  2. If you want to be able to add words to your new custom dictionary as you work, select it in the Custom Dictionaries dialog and click Change Default. This will set your new dictionary as the default dictionary so that when you right-click on a “misspelled” word and choose Add to Dictionary, it will be added to this dictionary instead of Custom.dic. Don’t forget to reset Custom.dic as your default dictionary when you’re working in ordinary documents.

  3. You can also add words to your new custom dictionary all at once. In the Custom Dictionaries dialog, select your custom dictionary and click Modify... or Edit Word List.... In the ensuing dialog, type a word in the box at the top and click Add. Repeat as desired. The words will be added in alphabetical order.

A custom dictionary opened for modification

Figure 5. A custom dictionary opened for modification

Some add-in dictionaries, such as dictionaries of medical and legal terms, are available for purchase. You can add such a dictionary by clicking Add in the Custom Dictionaries dialog, navigating to its location on your hard drive, selecting it, and clicking OK in the Add Custom Dictionary dialog. If you have created an exclusion dictionary, you can use this method to add it to the Custom Dictionaries list to make it more easily accessible for adding or removing entries.

Add Custom Dictionary dialog

Figure 6. The Add Custom Dictionary dialog

Too little spell checking

In recent versions of Word you have a number of options about how Word checks spelling. If you have “Check spelling as you type” checked in the Spelling & Grammar Options or Proofing Options dialog (see Figure 2), Word will put a wavy red underline under words it doesn’t recognize. If you opt not to check spelling as you type, you can still run the spelling checker explicitly by pressing F7 or through the menu or Ribbon as follows:

  • Word 2003: Tools | Spelling and Grammar

  • Word 2007, 2010, and 2013: Review | Proofing | Spelling & Grammar

Important Note: Spell checking is not available in protected forms. Word will not mark misspelled words with a wavy underline, pressing F7 has no effect (not even an error message), and Spelling and Grammar is disabled (dimmed) on the Tools menu. This is by design. You can spell-check protected forms using a macro, but this will require that users of the form be willing to enable macros. For instructions, see "How to enable the spellchecker in a protected document."

Nothing marked as misspelled

If no words are being marked as misspelled, even though you have "Check spelling as you type" enabled, it may be that you are an extremely good speller and not using any words that Word doesn't recognize. More likely, there is something wrong. Check the Spelling & Grammar Options or Proofing Options to make sure that "Hide spelling errors in this document" is not checked (see Figure 2).

If it is not, the usual problem is that the text has been formatted as “Do not check spelling or grammar” (see Figure 1). To correct this, select the entire document (Ctrl+A), apply the desired language to it, and clear the check box for “Do not check spelling and grammar” in the Language dialog.

Important Note: This box must be completely clear. If it is shaded, this indicates that some of the selected text has the “Do not check” property applied.

While clearing the check box for “Do not check spelling and grammar” for all the text in the document will provide a solution for the currently selected text, there are two caveats to be aware of:

  1. When you add text to the document, especially if you paste text from the Web, the “Do not check spelling and grammar” property may return, and you will have to repeat the process above.

  2. One reason that “Do not check spelling and grammar” may resurface is that it is defined as part of a style. In some styles, such as a style used for programming code or other text that is not natural language, it makes sense not to check spelling. But if this property doesn't belong in a given style, you can remove it. To do this, you must access the Modify Style dialog for the given style; for instructions, see How to modify a style in Word.” In the Modify Style dialog, click Format, then Language..., and clear the box for “Do not check spelling and grammar.” Click OK to return to the dialog. To save this style change to the attached template, in Word 2003 or earlier, check the box for “Add to template.” In Word 2007 or above, select the radio button for “New documents based on this template.” Click OK to close the dialog.

If you have Word 2007 or above and find that the spelling checker just does not work at all—that is, it doesn't mark any words as misspelled, and running the spelling checker with F7 doesn't find any errors—there are two more steps you can try:

  1. Click on Office Button | Word Options | Add-Ins | Manage: Disabled Items. If you see any disabled items that relate to spelling, try enabling them.
  2. If the previous suggestion doesn't help, then there is a Registry edit that may. If you are not comfortable editing the Registry, then you can use the Microsoft-provided "Fix it" in this article. To perform the edit yourself:
    a. Close Word and any other open applications.
    b. Click on Start | Run | Open and type "regedit" (without the quotation marks).
    c. If the key HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Shared Tools\Proofing Tools\1.0\Override exists, delete it.
    d. Exit the Registry Editor.
    e. Restart your computer.

Important Note: Although in most cases this operation will correct the problem, it could create a new one if you have installed a third-party spelling checker. Third-party companies use the Override key to redirect spellchecking to their speller instead of the built-in Office lexicon. But if the third-party checker works only for English, say, but disables the built in spell checker for all languages, then spell checking might work in English (using the third-party speller) but not in French or Spanish. Deleting the Override key will restore function for English, French, and Spanish (using the built-in speller) but will disable the third-party add-in.

Misspelled words skipped

Sometimes, even though “Check spelling as you type” is enabled and some words are marked as misspelled, you will type or see a word that you know is misspelled, but Word does not mark it or find it when you run the spelling checker. The usual reason for this is that that portion of the text has been formatted as “Do not check spelling or grammar.” You may even get a message from the spelling checker that "The spelling and grammar check is complete. Text marked with 'Do not check spelling or grammar' was skipped." Remember that language is a character format that can affect even small selected portions of your text. Although most of your document may have the correct language applied, it's possible for certain portions of it to be formatted as "Do not check spelling or grammar." You can use this to your advantage, but when you do want it checked, select the problem text (or the entire document) and clear the check box for "Do not check spelling or grammar" in the Language dialog.

Rechecking ignored words

Occasionally you will right-click on a misspelled word and choose Ignore All, then later think better of it. Once you’ve told Word to ignore the word, though, how do you get it to see the word as misspelled again? Go to:

  • Word 2003: Tools | Options | Spelling & Grammar

  • Word 2007: Office Button | Word Options | Proofing

  • Word 2010 and 2013: File | Options | Proofing

and click Recheck Document. You will get the message box shown in Figure 7. Answer Yes and your ignored word will again be marked as misspelled.

Recheck Document message box

Figure 7. Recheck Document message box

Marking correctly spelled words as misspelled

Sometimes you would like Word to call attention to a word that you frequently type when you intend to type a different, similar word. For example, suppose you often type “abut” when you mean “about.” “Abut” is an actual word, so it isn’t misspelled, but chances are that in most cases it’s a typo. You could add “abut > about” as an AutoCorrect entry, but there may be times when you would actually have a use for the word “abut,” so you don’t want to burn your bridges—just make sure that you have some warning that you may have used the wrong word. You can accomplish this by adding the word to an “exclusion dictionary.” This is also an effective way to deal with variant spellings that, while they may be generally accepted as correct, you prefer not to use. If you have Word 2007 or above, you will probably find you have less need for an exclusion dictionary, as the contextual spelling checker in that version will handle many of the “errors” that you would have added to an exclusion dictionary in previous versions.

Too much spell checking

Everything marked as misspelled

This should be an easy one to troubleshoot: clearly the language of the text doesn’t match the language of the proofing tools. If you’re typing in French and spell-checking in English, there may be a few words that will overlap, but for the most part you’ll have “misspellings.” Press Ctrl+A to select the entire document; then, in the Tools | Language | Set Language dialog (Review | Proofing | Set Language in Word 2007; Review | Language | Language | Set Proofing Language in Word 2010), select the correct language if proofing tools are available. If you don’t have proofing tools for the language installed, you can hide the spelling errors.

Correct words marked as misspelled

There are at least four possible reasons for a word to be marked as a misspelling even though you think (or know) it is spelled correctly:

  • It’s not in the lexicon. If it’s not in the list Word compares words to, it will be marked as misspelled; if it’s a word you use frequently, you can add it to your custom dictionary.

  • It’s formatted as the wrong language. If you type “civilisation” (a perfectly correct U.K. English spelling) but the language applied to the word is U.S. English, it will be marked as incorrect. Select the text and apply the correct language.

  • The word has been placed in an exclusion dictionary.

  • The word contains nonstandard characters. If the word is a contraction such as can’t or won’t, this is a likely possibility. Text imported from WordPerfect often uses characters from the WP Typographic Symbols font for apostrophes, quotation marks, dashes, and so on. If you don’t have the font installed, you’ll see inappropriate characters from your text font instead. If you do have the font installed, you’ll see what appears to be a correctly spelled word, but, because the apostrophe is a symbol Word doesn’t recognize, it doesn’t recognize the word. The error can be corrected by substituting an apostrophe from the text font. You’ll also have this problem if you use AutoCorrect to replace the combinations ff, fi, and fl with the “ligature” characters that appear in some fonts. These can improve the appearance of typeset pages but will cause Word to mark words as misspelled.

Hiding spelling errors

There are times when you don’t want to see spelling errors in your document, or you don’t want others to see them. There are several approaches to this problem, with varying effect on other documents and systems. The options can be summarized as follows:

 

Option 1: Disable “Check spelling as you type.”

Option 2: Enable “Hide spelling errors in this document.”

Option 3: Format the text as “Do not check spelling or grammar.”

Does this affect all my documents?

Yes

No

No

Will I see wavy underlines?

No

No

No

Will others see wavy underlines?

Probably; depends on local setting

No

No

Will I or others be able to check spelling explicitly?

Yes

Yes

No

  • Option 1: Disable “Check spelling as you type.” If you clear the check box for “Check spelling as you type” in the Spelling & Grammar or Proofing Options, spelling errors will not be marked in any document on your machine, but you will still be able to run the spelling checker explicitly (using F7 or Tools | Spelling and Grammar or, in Word 2007/2010/2013, Review | Proofing | Spelling & Grammar) whenever you want to. If you send the document to someone else who does have “Check spelling as you type” enabled, spelling errors will be marked on the recipient’s machine. This option is best when you don’t want to be distracted by the underlines or when your system does not run efficiently when “Check spelling as you type” is enabled.

  • Option 2: Enable “Hide spelling errors in this document.” If you check the box for “Hide spelling errors in this document,” only the present document is affected, and spelling errors will be hidden on any machine on which it is opened, regardless of the Spelling & Grammar Options settings. You can still run the spelling checker explicitly to check spelling, but recipients will not see any words marked as misspelled. This is a good option when a document contains many proper names or technical terms because, even if you add a “misspelled” word to your custom dictionary, unless it is in the recipient’s custom dictionary as well, the word will be marked as misspelled on the recipient’s machine.

  • Option 3: Format the text as “Do not check spelling or grammar.” If you select all the text, go to the Language dialog, and check the box for “Do not check spelling or grammar,” spelling errors will not be marked even if you have “Check spelling as you type” enabled, and you will not be able to check spelling by running the spelling checker explicitly. This setting affects only the present document, and it applies even on another machine. As explained in the next section, this option can be used selectively.

Exempting specific text from spell checking

Sometimes you will have a document in which certain kinds of text will always be “misspelled.” Even if you have exempted words in UPPERCASE, words with numbers, and Internet and file addresses (see Figure 2), there will still be text that the spelling checker will mark because it is in another language (for which you don’t have proofing tools) or because it is not a real language (programming code, for example, or equations that don’t contain numbers). This is an issue, for example, for an author writing a book about programming who must include code snippets. Or the issue may be just a lot of unusual names.

The solution to this problem is to format the text as “Do not check spelling or grammar.” Remember that we said that the language applied to text (and this includes the “(no proofing)” language) is a character format. It can be applied to a unit as small as a single letter, so it can certainly be applied to specific words or paragraphs.

The easiest way to apply this formatting is to apply a style that is formatted as “Do not check spelling or grammar.” If the text of this type will be complete paragraphs, this can be a paragraph style; if the text will be included in paragraphs of ordinary text, a character style can be used. To add the “Do not check spelling or grammar” property to a style, in the Modify Style dialog, click Format | Language and check the box for “Do not check spelling or grammar.” If you are creating a character style, it should be defined as “Default Paragraph Font + Do not check spelling or grammar” so that you can apply it to any style of text without changing the font formatting.

Figure 8. The Modify Style dialog box

Important Note: Often you will want to create a "no proofing" character style to apply to selected text. You should base this on Default Paragraph Font, and you would expect the resulting style description to be "Default Paragraph Font + Do not check spelling or grammar." If you try this, however, you will find that it does not work. Ironically, even though what you want your style to do is suppress use of the proofing tools, you have to explicitly tell Word what language's proofing tools you do not want to use! This means that you must select a language in the Language dialog before "Do not check..." will become active. The result will be a style defined as, say, "Default Paragraph Font + Do not check spelling or grammar, English (U.S.)."

Helpful Tip: When you tell Word not to check the spelling or grammar of selected text, you exempt it from all the proofing tools, including the hyphenation file. If you have enabled automatic hyphenation in a document and want to prevent certain words from being hyphenated, you can do it by formatting them as “Do not check spelling or grammar" (using a character style as described above).

Problems with the custom dictionary

Failure to recognize variant forms

Word’s built-in proofing tools have the ability to recognize all tense forms of an included verb, plurals and possessives of nouns, and any combination of caps and lowercase. Custom dictionaries don’t have this ability. If you add a noun all in lowercase, Word will recognize it when capitalized, but if you capitalize it in the custom dictionary, it will not be recognized when lowercased. Nor will it be recognized if you make it plural or possessive; you must add all these variant forms individually.

Word added in error

To remove a word from a custom dictionary, open the Custom Dictionaries dialog, select the appropriate dictionary, and click Modify. Select the incorrect word, click Delete, then click OK.

Word not added

If you right-click on a “misspelled” word and choose Add to Dictionary and get the error message, “The custom dictionary is full. The word was not added,” this can indicate that the dictionary is corrupt or the spelling checker files are damaged; see this Microsoft Knowledge Base article. In no case does the message actually mean that the custom dictionary is full—at least not in recent versions of Word (there is a maximum size of 64 KB, but it's unlikely you'll reach that, though you might experience performance issues if the dictionary becomes very large).

If, however, the Add to Dictionary command is unavailable (dimmed on the shortcut menu), this indicates that the language of the default dictionary differs from the language applied to the word you’re trying to add. By default, Custom.dic is set to All Languages; if you change it to, say, French, you will not be able to add an English word. This error might easily arise if you had created an additional custom dictionary for specific terms, set the language to something other than All Languages, set it as the default temporarily, and forgotten to reselect Custom.dic as the default.

Note: It has also been reported that sometimes the Custom.dic file inexplicably gets flagged as Read-only. The solution to that problem is to select the file in Windows Explorer, right-click, choose Properties, and clear the check box for "Read-only."

__________________

*Astute readers will recognize the allusion to this passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

This article copyright © 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014 by Suzanne S. Barnhill. I am grateful to Stefanie Schiller, Thierry Fontenelle, and Lisa Decrozant of Microsoft's Natural Language Group, whose comments helped me make this article more accurate. Any errors that remain are my own.