And then there's the one about the wily sixth grader named Wendy who got an F in spelling. Walking home with her report card, the girl pondered nervously how to break this humiliating news to her father. Then Wendy remembered a salient fact: Dad was a worse speller than she was. So Wendy coolly talked her way out of trouble; she convinced the old man that the grade stood for "Fenomenal."
Nowadays, of course, a kid as clever as Wendy would probably avoid bad grades in spelling by doing her work on a computer and using a spell-checking program. Automated spelling correction is a natural function for the personal computer. It was one of the tasks that science fiction writers routinely predicted back in the dark ages (we're talking 1975 or so) before the personal computer had arrived.
In the early years of the PC revolution, the performance of spelling-correction software was restricted, to put it mildly, by disk and memory limitations; it was usually faster for a human to leaf through a compact handbook such as the famous McGraw-Hill "20,000 Words Spelled and Divided" than to rely on a computerized dictionary. Today, with hard disks, extensive RAM memory, and the new breed of speedy microprocessors becoming common PC equipment, the electronic spelling checkers are faster and easier to use than any book.
Nowadays most major word-processing programs -- from shareware all the way up to the $400 top-of-the-line software -- come with some kind of spelling checker built in. These built-ins vary in quality. The "Proof" program that comes with PFS Professional Write is fast, easy to use and easy to ignore if you choose. In contrast, the "Spell" program provided with Microsoft Word is slow and cumbersome -- clearly the weakest link in that package.
You're not restricted, though, to the built-in spelling programs. There are a lot of stand-alone correction programs that run with almost any word-processing software; for the most part, they're pretty cheap. Even if your spelling really is phenomenal, these programs can be useful. They tend to perform lots of little jobs: targeting typos, counting the number of words in your text, pointing out words or cliches you use too often, and spotting inadvertent repetitions. like the one in this sentence. Some also offer an on-line thesaurus, so you can turn yourself into a pompous linguistic show-off at the touch of a key.
Lots of people swear by a program called Webster's New World Speller (Simon & Schuster, $45 via mail order, or $85 with an accompanying thesaurus). This program, based on its eponymous dictionary, has some nice features and recognizes an impressive range of words. (This is crucial, because a checker with an inadequate dictionary will drive you crazy spotting "errors" that you know are spelled correctly.) But Webster's is nowhere near instantaneous in operation and it turns into a real pain when it finds a misspelled word because it offers so many different ways to deal with that discovery.
The preferable alternative is a program called Turbo Lightning (Borland International, $60 via mail order for speller and thesaurus), which resides in memory full-time and pops up to check a single word, a sentence or a 50-page document. In fact, Turbo Lightning will read over your shoulder and beep whenever you type a word it doesn't recognize; mercifully, there's a way to turn this "feature" off. Turbo might take, say, 20 seconds to check a one-page business letter. Even it it comes up with a single typo, it's worth the time.
In the "they-said-it-couldn't-be-done" category, there's an intriguing little spelling checker called Sardine (Traveling Software, $170) that runs on the tiniest lap-top computers, including the Radio Shack model 100, 102 and 200. It's built into a ROM chip that you stick in the bottom of the computer. It has 7,000 words and it works, except for a large number of false "error" indications. Sardine also comes in a disk version with 33,000 words for $100.
Another intriguing device is a hand-held spelling checker called the Franklin Spelling Ace, which can be had for $70 or so at K mart and similar stores. It packs 88,000 words and a fast checking engine into an 8-oz. box the size of a calculator. It's an impressive performer, but I can't figure out who would use it. You have to type in the word (as best you can spell it) on Franklin's little keyboard -- a waste of time and effort if you've already typed the same word into your computer. Our wily friend Wendy might want it for her next spelling test, but it's not clear that teachers will welcome this device in their classrooms