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Word’s Symbol Spelling bug

Word’s spell check has a serious bug when it comes to symbols.

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by Office Watch

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Some time back we looked at the ‘Word ampersand mystery’, that’s where the spell-checker behaves strangely when there’s an ampersand in the text. It turns out to be a bigger problem involving many symbol characters.

An ampersand at the end of a word or letter should trigger a spelling error – but it does not.

Word - Ampersand test image from Word’s Symbol Spelling bug  at

An ampersand next to a single letter is treated correctly with no red squiggly line. That’s because of many common abbreviations, mostly for company names.

We consider it a bug since there’s no common usage or spelling that requires an ‘&’ symbol next to a single word or letter. That applies in any human language.

But wait … there’s @#~+ more

The bug shows up not just for ampersands but also other characters. The @, #, ~ and + are all treated the same (wrong) way in Word.

Word Symbol bug examples image from Word’s Symbol Spelling bug  at

AsteriSK exception

The asterisk (or Asterix depending on your taste in comic books)  ‘ * ‘ is treated a little differently. Two words separated by a * is NOT marked as a spelling error yet it clearly is.

Word - Asterisk symbol bug image from Word’s Symbol Spelling bug  at

While the asterisk is a common search character we can’t see any reason for it to be treated differently in the Office spell-checker for human language.

Percentage bug

The % percentage character isn’t given any special treatment by the spell checker. You might expect that digits followed by a % would be cleared by the spell check – and it is.

Word - Percentage symbol bug image from Word’s Symbol Spelling bug  at

However a % followed by digits is also deemed OK- but why?

What to do?

This bug reinforces the reminder that you can't rely on the Word spell checker to proof your documents - you have to read them.

Those red squiggly lines are useful for highlighting many problems but not everything is caught by Word's spelling and grammar checks.

On the other hand, these 'symbol next to letter' situations should be detected by Word and that's why we consider them full blown bugs.

Why does it matter?

A few readers asked us why we were bothering with such minutiae? A fair question but we don’t think these are minor details.

Rightly or wrongly, people rely on the Word spell-checker to alert them to potential problems in their documents. It is important that the system puts the red squiggly line under text that is wrong. In the cases we’ve highlighted the text is clearly wrong in any common human language.

It's easy enough to miss a single space when typing two words or letters with an ampersand (eg ‘ George& Gracie ‘ Flanders &Swann’ ). As it stands Word won’t warn you about the missing space, making it easy to overlook.

The spell-check system needs to be revisited and the long-standing programming revised. In our view it should ‘err on the side of caution’ and mark as an error any situation where a special character is next to a letter.

The percentage symbol is a special case and should warn about all ‘character adjacent’ scenarios except when it follows a digit.

Situations where the ampersand or other characters appear next to letters (eg programming code, maths formula, search or regular expressions) can be handled the way Microsoft intends; using the ‘No Proofing’ option to exclude that text from spell checking.

Article posted: Tuesday, 11 October 2011

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