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Virtual Spelling

If I mentioned the word ‘virtual’ what would that mean for you?

For many people that I have spoken to, the mention of ‘virtual’ immediately creates a leap to ‘virtual reality’ and the promise of experiencing a new world based upon computers and video games. ‘Virtual Reality’ is a key example for ‘being virtual’ and it is also presents only one aspect of virtuality. In this article, we’d like to expand the definition of ‘being virtual’. To do this we’ll be looking at the example of the spell checking function on your word processor.


It may be a stretch at this point in time to claim the spell checking function on a computer program as an example of ‘virtuality’, yet all software creates this effect to some extent. The dictionary definition of ‘virtual’ is ‘have the effect of, but not strictly be it’. In a simple way, your computer and its word processing software has the effect of checking your spelling, even though your computer has no understanding of words or even letters, let alone how to spell. Alternative words to describe this could be ‘simulated’ or ‘artificial’.

How Spell Checking Works

How a spellchecker works is something like this…

We type in our word and the computer software indicates the word is not ‘spelt’ correctly by underlining it in red or some other outstanding colour. As the reader, we can accept this and either correct the spelling or consult the spelling function for the correct string of letters. Whilst it may appear that the computer ‘knows’ how to spell, it is in effect only a ‘virtual’ speller. At a simple level, the computer is merely comparing a list of stored words with the words in your text. If the word you have typed does not appear in the stored file of words, it will be displayed ‘as if’ it is incorrectly spelt.

You can test this with your word processor by typing in some words related to the Internet – many of these ‘new words’ may not have been added to the ‘dictionary’ component of the software. Your ‘new word’ may be marked as spelt incorrectly, when it is clearly not. (Computers have a limited vocabulary too!)

I suggest that what is being offered is a generally reliable way to test spelling – it certainly works for me in most cases. It is also not infallible – particularly when you have spelt a word correctly and simply used the wrong word. For example, I could have spelt this ‘four example’ and the computer spelling would not pick up this error. After all it is a grammatical error not a spelling error.

The Dictionary Spelling Method

So, if our spell checker is not really checking our spelling, what is happening? My suggestion is spell checkers mimic the ‘dictionary approach to spelling’. The method goes like this… you don’t know the spelling of a word, so you use a book (a dictionary) that is ordered based upon the spelling of the word. Ironically, to look up the spelling of a word, you need to know how it is spelt.

This can be particularly ineffective if you are a poor speller and don’t have any clues how to spell a particular word. Consider a word like ‘psychologist’ which is not spelt like it is spoken. You may know that it starts with a ‘P’, and then what? If you are good at spelling, this approach is often successful because you can take a reasonable guess as to how a word is spelt and you can ‘check’ the dictionary to confirm your thoughts.

The 'Virtual Effect'

Doing this manually with a dictionary can be slow and tedious as you look up each word. However, the beauty of the electronic dictionary as a virtual spellchecker is that it speeds up the process and can ‘guess’ at the word you are attempting to write. It does this by comparing your string of letters with the string of letters it has filed away. If you have one or two minor letters incorrectly, it can offer you a selection of alternative words from which you can pick the one that is most suitable.

The power of the electronic process is to accelerate the speed of checking your spelling and provide you with alternatives. Whilst this is not a guarantee of success, it generally is acceptable. It takes a relatively inefficient way to measure words, speeds up the process and makes it appear as if it is guiding you with your spelling. This is the ‘virtual effect’.

Key Aspects

This example of the word processor software spell checking function highlights several key aspects of ‘being virtual’.
1 The ‘product’ acts as if it is something else.
2 The ‘product’ uses a method that is effective because it is electronic.
3 To work electronically, the process (‘product’) requires information processing.
4 The ‘product’ accelerates slower processes to have the appearance of something else.


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