Every Which Way But Loose


One of the most amazingly useful features designed into Office is the red-squiggle underlined spell checking introduced in Word 95.


Spell checking before that was a rather modal process: type some words, hit the spell check button, wait for a dialog box to open up to show the next spelling error, click one of the buttons in the dialog box, and then repeat the process over and over again.


I was just starting college when I saw the red squiggle for the first time and I remember thinking “this changes everything.” What I once considered to be a tedious, lengthy chore became something that I didn’t have to think about at all. I made my corrections as I went, just like I fix other errors as I type. For me, the feature makes me feel freer to concentrate on my writing.


I think it has also contributed to increased proficiency as a speller. The red squiggles make wrong words look wrong on the page. As a result, an association is created between the wrong spelling and the negative reinforcement of seeing a big red line under it. I feel like I can tell when I’ve typed incorrectly spelled words sometimes–some part of my brain triggers, knowing that a red squiggle is about to appear. Maybe it’s in my imagination, but I do feel like I type fewer misspelled words than ever before in my life.


Some people feel that red squiggle spelling is problematic because it takes your mind away from the process of putting thoughts on the page. I suppose I can see that, but I still prefer the “as you go” approach personally. In Office 2007 you can continue to use both ways of spell checking, of course.


Eventually a similar feature for grammar was introduced, in which potential grammatical errors are underlined with green squiggles. My goal is to write well enough to hardly ever see these pop up, but from time to time I fail and I do like the ability to correct these errors on the fly. In some ways, the as-you-go grammar check is even more useful, because correcting a grammar error often requires reordering words in a sentence or rephrasing a thought.


Now, in Word 2007, a new kind of squiggle is being introduced: the blue squiggle. There’s a new feature in Office called “contextual spelling” and it’s designed to detect words that are correctly spelled but improperly used.


An example: it seems to me that 90% of the Internet world believes the English word lose is actually spelled loose.


“This is one battle I’m not willing to loose.”
“I need to loose thirty more pounds.”


In fact, there are whole web pages set up to help people learn that there’s a difference between the words.


This is the kind of error that a traditional spell checker doesn’t catch. Both “lose” and “loose” are valid English words; only the context of the surrounding sentence makes it clear that “loose” is the wrong word in these two sentences.



The contextual spell checker in Word 2007 flags errors like this by underlining them with blue squiggles and suggesting the correct word instead. If you have Beta 2 of Office 2007 installed in English, Spanish, or German, you should already have this feature enabled. (Note: I seem to recall that the feature is disabled in Beta 2 below a certain system memory threshold because it takes a lot of memory to perform all of the contextual analysis.)


The Speech and Natural Language group at Microsoft has been working on this feature for quite some time and they have a blog entry of their own where they explain more about the feature and how it works.

Comments (48)

  1. Francis says:

    1. I am skeptical about this feature. The simpler and less processor-intensive grammar checker (green squiggles) already takes issue with many grammatically valid constructions, e.g.:

    "Though it be in the power of the weakest arm to take away life, it is not in the strongest to deprive us of death."

    ("be" is erroneously underlined.)

    2. Is the style/consistency checker, with its blue squiggles, going the way of the dodo?

  2. Cool, but it doesn’t seem to be that smart… You get an error for "One is less then two" but not for "I am bigger then you". Interestingly enough, "I am bigger then two" gives the error back. Still an interesting feature!

  3. Randy says:

    Wait, you mean people will actually be able to learn the difference between to, too, and two?  Oh my… what have you done?! 😉

  4. Rob Meek says:

    I tried this:

    This is an oportunity witch should not of been missed.

    Initially, the misspelling is the only item that is marked. However, some variations produce different results. For example, using ‘which’ causes Word to mark the spelling error and the grammar error ‘of’, while manually correcting the spelling error causes Word to underline witch in blue…

    I think it is a great idea but it should work in a consistent manner to be usable. I imagine that a lot of work went into this since some contextual errors are likely to be masked by spelling or grammatical errors elsewhere in a sentence. For my example above, Word needs to pick out either the contextual error or the grammatical error once the spelling error is fixed. As it stands it doesn’t do either!

  5. Hob Gadling says:

    Thank God! If it can fix "loose" for "lose", "it’s" for "its", "their" for "there" and other such hobgoblins, the world will be a better place. Now if only we get a copy of Office 2007 to all Slashdot posters… 🙂

  6. John Topley says:

    I’m pretty sceptical about how well this is going to work based on my experience with the grammar checker. I always turn the squiggles off because they’re too distracting.

  7. Chris says:

    I’ve found that instead of learning how to spell better, I have learned how to spell for the spell checker.

  8. I have a short list of words I often miss use.  Whenever I would begin a proofreading pass, I would do a global search and replace.  For example I would replace "it’s" with "it’s{it is/it has}" and "its" with "its{possessive}".  Once I’m done proofing, I reverse the replacements.  This was inspired by the venerable style program on many Unix systems.

    Now I use a cool text editor that has a syntax highlighting feature which can be customized for any programming language.  I made a dummy language and put my list of dangerous words in as keywords.  Now all the words I need to watch out for are subtley highlighted on screen.  I also have it highlight (in a different color) weak words that I overuse, like "just," "seems," "try," and all the forms of "to be."  Having the highlighting come up as you type does indeed help train your brain to compose better the first time.

    Now if only I could get used to all the idiosyncracies of composing in Word.

  9. Stephen says:

    I think this is excellent feature.  "Loose / lose" is a great example because often times "loose" is created because of a double tap on "O" and if it wasn’t a real word, would (wood??) otherwise be corrected as a double tap.  Now it won’t slip past the cracks.  

    Sometimes these checks are wrong, but they’re (their, there??) helpful. I’m sure the feature needs work and will receive thorough attention.  If you geniuses are too good for it or they are too distracting, then turn them off.  (Office button > Word Options > Proofing > Use contextual spelling) But think of how helpful this will be for your (you’re??) children and the rest of the general public who may not have written a novel or have a Bachelor’s in English. Some of the examples we could dream up that this feature ‘should’ catch are moot, because if you that proficient in writing you don’t need this feature.

    @Rob Meek

    "Witch / which" don’t seem to be in the contextual filter, yet.

    "The which was very mean." OR "Witch way are you going?"

    Doesn’t grab either. Here’s to hoping it’s added.

  10. tim says:

    true that

  11. Adam says:

    Does this addtion mean that Word should now pick up every single error listed at:

    http://www.earlygirl.com/sincerely.shtml

    ? 🙂

  12. Nidonocu says:

    Since using this, I can’t believe how often I screw up its or it’s. This feature is helping me spell better too, I only wish that like the bad red squiggles, these errors enforced more their seriousness and were accompanied by the scream of a grammar nazi. 😉

  13. Abigail says:

    Obviously it’s not perfect, but it’s a great start!! I can’t tell you how happy I would be if the English-typing world learned the difference between loose and lose. Every little bit helps, and I can only assume it will get better as we go.

    Nidonocu,

    Grammar Nazi at your service! I can customize a scream for you and override the spell check command using Ribbon customization…

  14. Paul Bennett says:

    The thing is, the "grammar checker" is wrong more often than it’s right, at least for me. It’s not Microsoft’s fault: the determination of semantics and context (and, indeed, the identification of style, and of deviations from a given style) are fields that the human race has a nearly negligible understanding of. Word’s grammar checker does go one worse than the simple limits of the art, though, flagging the kinds of "voodoo linguistics" that are perpetuated by Strunk & White, and the whole "why can’t English be more like Latin?" crowd.

  15. Aaron M. Hall says:

    I am looking forward to the world learning the difference between:

    I accept the challenge except if it’s too hard!

  16. Leo Petr says:

    Conversely, AutoCorrect is a terrible feature because it rewards bad finger motions with correct spelling. This results in people making the same bad finger motions outside of Word. Since there is no AutoCorrect outside of Word, the learned misspellings flourish.

  17. Leo Petr says:

    Conversely, AutoCorrect is a terrible feature because it rewards bad finger motions with correct spelling. This results in people making the same bad finger motions outside of Word. Since there is no AutoCorrect outside of Word, the learned misspellings flourish.

  18. LGFN says:

    Tight or lose, it’s an excellent shirt.

    Nothing happens.

  19. Keff says:

    Hob Gadling:"Now if only we get a copy of Office 2007 to all Slashdot posters… :)"

    Jensen could – I can’t understand why isn’t spellchecking just a system-wide property of every textbox, that’s one of few things windows could learn from unix…

    Has anyone the exlanation?

  20. Adam says:

    Leo: Yup, that’s one of the things that annoys me about autocorrect – the other is that when you *want* to be ironic and type "teh intarw3b suxx0rz!!!", Word will replace "teh" with "the", which in that context is *wrong*.

    Of course, you could claim it’s trying to teach you better 1337, as it won’t do the substitition if you type "t3h", but I don’t think anyone’s going to buy that! 🙂

  21. A User says:

    Rats! Now how am I going to screen out the 80% of resumes that are from functional illiterates?

    More seriously, this will exacerbate the tendency of grammar checker to steer people toward simplistic, choppy, plain vanilla prose and to discourage more expressive language constructs that the software is unable to analyze. I constantly encourage my staff to use language structure to express the structure of their ideas, with the ulterior motive of coaching them in organizing their thinking. Grammar checker is more a hindrance than a help for those who lack confidence to override it regularly.

  22. Kim says:

    Actually it tends to bug me a bundle. And I’ve always turned it off. Why? Because when I write I don’t want to be thinking about spelling, I want to be thinking on what ever I write abot. I’ll take care of later when proofing.

  23. Mark Sowul says:

    re:"The thing is, the "grammar checker" is wrong more often than it’s right, at least for me. It’s not Microsoft’s fault: the determination of semantics and context (and, indeed, the identification of style, and of deviations from a given style) are fields that the human race has a nearly negligible understanding of. Word’s grammar checker does go one worse than the simple limits of the art, though, flagging the kinds of "voodoo linguistics" that are perpetuated by Strunk & White, and the whole "why can’t English be more like Latin?" crowd"

    Even if the grammar checker flags things which are actually correct, most of the time time, things it finds could stand to be rewritten anyway for clarity’s sake.  If you write well, Word’s grammar checker is effective (turn on style checks as well!)

  24. John Hunt says:

    Yes, this is a nice feature. Shame Microsoft bundle it with a few gigabytes of other stuff that is not only useless but slows your system down and requires an upgrade. Personally, I prefer the lightweight ABI word..yes it’s not as flash, but it does it’s job.

  25. John Topley says:

    "Yes, this is a nice feature. Shame Microsoft bundle it with a few gigabytes of other stuff that is not only useless but slows your system down and requires an upgrade. Personally, I prefer the lightweight ABI word..yes it’s not as flash, but it does it’s [sic] job."

    What’s that few gigabytes of other stuff then?

  26. Stu Smith says:

    I definitely like the idea, but I respectfully suggest the new colour is a bad idea.

    Red sguiggles for badly spelled words? OK I can understand that, a non-word is a non-word. Red is an error.

    Green makes sense to me in that grammar isn’t an absolute, it shades from bad to good, you might want to use alternate constructs for emphasis, and also the computer isn’t smart enough to understand, so green suggests that something *might* be wrong.

    Blue… what does blue mean? Here I think you’re using a different colour just because it’s a new feature, or a different function call under the hood. As an end-user I don’t care about that.

    So I think the question is… can Word accurately identify incorrect words, in which case it should be a red squiggle, or is it more a suggestion for review, in which case green is a more appropriate colour.

    You’re justifiably pleased about this feature; but don’t colour-code according to cleverness, colour-code according to what it means to me.

  27. Nate Hekman says:

    Will it catch inconsistent usage of correct spellings?  For example, "judgment" and "judgement" are both correct spellings of the same word, but the same spelling should be used consistently throughout a document.  In Canada we very often mix "American" and "British" spellings, but it’s tough to be consistent!

  28. Mike says:

    Always-on continuous grammer and spelling checkers are great if you only ever write English.  I’m a dev, most of the word documents I create are filled with code, API names, variable names, etc.  Most specs I read are a solid mass of squiggles.

    Is there a way to add words to a dictionary attached to the document instead of the user/machine?  Is there a way to flag sections of a document (via a style maybe) as "don’t grammer check"?

  29. Michael says:

    About Office red lines helping me spell, I think not.  I am a 9th grade student, so I grew up writing with the red underlines.  I think I actually spell worse because I can fix my errors so easily.  I also never look at and take the time to learn the word correctly.  I just pick the right thing and move on.  Also if I just can’t spell a word, I set up auto-correct to change my spelling into the correct one.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t work when I write on old-fashioned paper 🙁  That’s another dangerous trend 🙂

    -Michael

    PS. Can you put the squiggly lines feature in IE, or at least basic old fashioned spell checking.  Currently I need to use your competitor, Google’s toolbar to find spelling errors.  Unfortunately, the school’s computer doesn’t have this.  So please think about putting spell checking in IE, especially now that apps are moving online (I bet you at Microsoft, especially Office division,  dislike that trend)

  30. Troy Hepfner says:

    Stu, having three different colors for the different tools is actually a good idea (at least for me).  In the event that I want to use only one or two of the tools, the color tells me which one to go turn off.  For example, I always use the spell checker, but I turn the grammar checker off because it detects a lot of false positives.  When I sit down to use Word on a new computer, and I see the green lines, I remember that I have to go turn off the grammar checker.  If both tools used red underline, I would be wondering why it was giving me spelling errors for correctly spelled words.

    Jensen, it would be nice to be able to customize the colors though, especially for color-blind folks who may not be able to tell blue and green apart.  That would also solve Stu’s issue (if he wanted to make them all red, green, or whatever).

  31. Lefty says:

    Because the new contextual spell-checking is so inconsistent, I’m wondering just what rules it’s applying.  It seems to be applying a few very basic rules rather than really examining context.  "It’s a prefect world" gets flagged, for example, but not "It’s prefect."  Entire sentences of nonsense get the green light.  I’m wondering just how "context" is defined here.

    It’s of course great that context is at least starting to be considered, but I worry that users will now depend on the spell-checker even more and will proofread even less than they already do.

  32. David says:

    The first thing I do when I get a new machine and/or a new version of Word is turn off both the spell checker and the grammar checker. I can’t stand either.

  33. Donald says:

    Hi there!

    I like the idea of this feature (haven’t tried it myself yet) but I ask you if the blue color was really necessary? Red means "you made a typo" and green means "there is something wrong, look closer". I guess, it would be much clearer for the user if this feature did its underlines in green as well.

    Just so that the user doesn’t get confused all the time. "Man, what meaning was this color again?"  

  34. Andrea says:

    The conversation about the colors is very interesting. I am in the group who developed the contextual speller and have used a prototype which temporarily used green squiggles for this kind of error. Maybe it’s just me, but after having experienced both, I prefer being able to distinguish between grammar errors, spelling errors, and contextual ones.

    People will notice errors which are not detected. A high degree of acuracy often comes at the "price" of lower error-coverage. As with grammar errors, people should not rely that every potential error will be caught. I still find it amazing how often I see a good blue squiggle, allowing me to have just that one less mishap in my documents or emails compared to the past.

  35. I don’t really see the difference between this and a grammar error. Or, more accurately, word choice is a grammar error. So why is this different? Is it just because a word choice error can stack on top of a grammar error?

  36. Perry says:

    I think this is a nice idea (and i like the blue squiggle just fine), but so far it doesn’t seem to like the subjunctive case very well:

    "The idea is that, were every test case to pass on the first test run, the numbers should be identical."

    The word "were" got a blue squiggle.

  37. Brian G. says:

    When the heck will Word "light-up" the OS, specifically Vista, so I can have a system wide spell checker. I’m not always in Word, so the only time benefit from the Word spell checker is when I’m in Word (duh!).

    But, as I type this comment in the browser, it should be checking my spelling as well, just like Word, using my custom dictionaries and everything.

    I won’t even start on a rant about spell checking within Excel. Today I needed to check my spelling in Excel 2007 and it took me 5 minutes to find the spell check command in the ribbon. The ribbon needs a search feature, enabled by Alt <release> Ctrl-F or something.

  38. Joe says:

    In response to the people that keep saying contextual spell checking should be green: I don’t think the mistake is ‘word choice’. If someone spells lose ‘loose’, they meant the word lose. In their head, its still pronounced ‘looz’. It seems clear to me its a spelling error that just happens to also be another word. So if anything, it should be red.

    However, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to choose our colours. I second Troy Hepfner’s suggestion here.

    On a similar note, it annoys me that when i show tracked changes ‘by reviewer’, the colours for this are randomly different every time. Could there be a way to choose specific colours for specific reviewers so that they were constant?

  39. Carrie says:

    I’m in the turn-em-off camp. Occasional usefulness is far outweighed by the false positives. Sentence fragment? Why yes, it is. It’s a section header, duh. Misspelled? Only because you didn’t interpret the superscript letter as indicating a table footnote. Names? Abbreviations? Spelling errors, all of them. God help us. I am perpetually caught between Word’s admonitions against passive voice and academic journals’ admonitions against personal pronouns or other self-reference.

    I spell- and grammarcheck before a document goes out. But mostly I rely on proofreading, by real people.

  40. Persone los pioneros non rabata. Great…

  41. pf.org says:

    Won of the moist exciting knew features in Microsoft Office 12 is contextual spell-check in Word. In other words, Microsoft’s engineers and programmers took the technology in they’re grammar czech and applied it too the problem of homonyms. Word will

  42. rape movies says:

    Asaspal. Memrano tu es besta. Amigo.

  43. rape videos says:

    Your article is quite right, thanks.

  44. C#r says:

    Why does this feature require a different color? Isn’t the use of loose vs. lose a grammatical error? It’s vs. its is (often) flagged by the existing Word 11 (2003) grammar checker.

    For the record I *like* the idea and appreciate that even if it misses a few and has some false positives (just like the existing grammar checker), anything you can do to contextual analyze and provide feedback is a good thing. I just don’t think we need a different color… even if the internal engine that provides the feedback is different, why should the user be "bothered" by that? To the human it’s all about wrong grammar.

    (For the record, spelling is justifiably a different color because that communicates the nature of the problem in a meaningful way to the human.)