Spell-Checking the Way to Election Day

When fast isn't fast enough, spell-checker is sometimes your worst enemy.


Feb. 1, 2008 — -- It's a precarious life we've lived this election cycle here on the ABC News Digital Politics team.

We're always on the hunt for active verbs, visual adjectives and tight, pithy headlines that make readers want to click, click, click.

But there's been a digital demon on our back. We work the six-day weeks and Saturday-night primaries knowing we're always one mistype, one careless spell-check, one high-intensity breaking news story, one lightning-speed "publish to site," one angry editor away from turning "cap" into "crap," "throng" into "thong" and "Obama" into "Osama."

In a world where fast isn't always fast enough, spell-check isn't always your friend. Rather, your worst enemy.

I'm not the first to voice this concern. Three weeks and six-ish presidential candidates ago, ABC's Z. Byron Wolf touched on the same theme, verbalizing the fear and frustration of the digital political frontier when he dared to ask: "How many primary states does a candidate have to win to get his (or her) name in the dictionary?"

It's a fair question. So, I went straight to the Seattle-based source: Microsoft.

It turns out Microsoft's public relations team is based in Portland. And also that they don't spend nearly as much time invoking the name of the presidential candidates in typeface or worrying about spell-check as I do. When I initially told the public relations team member unfortunate enough to have to return my phone call that in spell-check "Obama" suggested the replacement "Osama," he said, "that's not good."

A follow-up email sought to clarify.

The Microsoft spokesman explained, Microsoft spell-checker did not have subliminal motives in its intended suggestion. Microsoft considers "a number of factors when updating our content, including user feedback, frequency of the words in market area publications, and the first names of public figures whose last names have been added."

Wrote he, "The behavior seen here was not because there was logic in Office or the Office spell-checker specifically targeted towards the word 'Obama' to change it to 'Osama.' Instead, the spell-checker just didn't have 'Obama' in its dictionary, so it tried to provide alternative suggestions based on closest match."

There was good news, too, for the politically and digital weary.

"The latest version of the Office speller includes the word 'Obama' and users can freely download an update from the following sites, depending on their version of Office:

1. Office 2007: the SP1 update includes the fix found HERE

2. Office 2003 users can request the fix following the steps described HERE

With Obama taken care of now in my Microsoft Wor(l)d, I can put more concentration into avoiding "sex" where I meant "six," "pubic" where I meant "public," always being mindful not to type "bra" where "bar" should be.

(And whoever thinks that's made up never almost published the headline "Clinton Raises the Bra" following 2007's first-quarter fundraising totals.)