spell-check, dying English, Lucca Institute, Alexander PetersenA group of physicists recently collaborated on a statistical survey of words. You may be wondering why physicists are interested in language. In this case, it is not language per se, but how words imitate the statistical patterns of the stock market and animal populations. This group of researchers, led by Alexander Petersen of the IMT Lucca Institute for Advanced Studies, culled data from Google’s digitized books to analyze how word use varies over time.

In particular, the scientists looked at “word competition.” Why would words compete? Well, this isn’t about competition between words. Obviously, for language as a whole to function, nouns need verbs, which need prepositions and adverbs. In this sense, competition refers to aggression between different variations of a word: is “color” used more than “colour”? It may be hard to imagine this, but before spell-check there were often misspelled words in newspapers and published books. As the researchers point out: “With the advent of spell-checkers in the digital era, the fitness of a ‘correctly’ spelled word is now larger than the fitness of related ‘incorrectly’ spelled words.”

How does spell-check (and grammar check) work in the first place? Learn about the history of word processing and the Cupertino effect here.

Completely new words are often the product of an innovation, such as the internet, but languages also evolve because of new settings. Who knows if Americanisms like “skedaddle”, “rambunctious” , and “discombobulate” would have survived spell-check if they had arisen later in time.

The physicists also looked at synonym death. Have you ever heard of a radiogram? Probably not. The words radiogram and roentgenogram mean an x-ray. This may come as a shock, but before the 20th century, the word “roentgenogram” was used most frequently. Today, x-ray is the dominant word, while radiogram and roentgenogram are nearly extinct. Shorter more efficient words can eventually kill their longer, clunkier brethren.

Due to synonym death and the widespread use of spell-check, words are dying. Using complex algorithms, the scientists discovered that in the past 40 years more words have died than during any other period in their data (from 1800 – 2008). At the same time, fewer words are being successfully introduced into the language. As the scientists conclude: “In the past 10-20 years, the total number of distinct words has significantly decreased, which we find is due largely to the extinction of both misspelled words and nonsensical print errors, and simultaneously, the decreased birth rate of new misspelled variations.” Statistically speaking, the language is shrinking.

How are words removed from the dictionary? Find out here.

If you understand the phrase “log-linear plot”, here is the academic paper upon which this research is based.

What do you think of spell-checks influence on our words? Will spell-check do more harm than good?

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  1. suzann -  December 21, 2012 - 8:49 pm

    I have become aware of many words being misused, or words that have totally disappeared from daily usage. No one seems to know or care when “LESS” or “FEWER”
    is appropriate. “Fewer” is rarely used, making “less” the incorrect word of choice most often. (“Less people were there today.”) The article “AN” is non-existent now, and contributes to speakers sounding even more ignorant than need be. It is actually painful to listen to a person considered intelligent…. (journalists, polititicians, teachers!) clumsily stating, “It was ‘A’ international fiasco…” or “Results of ‘A’ independent study show…!”. So very many other misuses occur regularly and are just as glaringly obvious and so very disturbing to anyone actually educated in elementary school English! It is difficult to know all the factors responsible for such a rapid decline in the ability to use our own language intelligently.

  2. Darmech -  November 1, 2012 - 6:23 am

    There are the words that are constantly incorrectly used e.g.: awesome
    And there are words that should be used and are not e.g.: nor and neither.
    Spell check does not account for this as the system is only Basic English and spelling

  3. harpo210 -  August 31, 2012 - 6:00 pm

    What are these people talking about. Some of us are bad spellers,
    so the “Spell check” is of great help, save time, tha is all.

    But the more we use the less we will need it not? make sense to me.
    I promote reading…

    And then is memory,, that is the big factor..

  4. Philip Spencer -  July 28, 2012 - 1:41 pm

    While there is probably some truth to what it says in this article, it’s basically nonsense. Some words do disappear due to lack of use, but the English language as a whole is growing at the rate of one new word every 8 minutes. The English language has more words than any other language, and it is growing at a faster pace than any other language.

  5. Roek -  June 12, 2012 - 7:10 pm


  6. WordSmart -  June 11, 2012 - 5:03 am

    I like it when words are written correctly and when they are not, then I am the spellchecker.. in the internet I play at TypoBounty.com

  7. fishcolonel2 -  May 25, 2012 - 11:25 am

    You cannot kill a word as long as one man still says it.
    You cannot eliminate a language as long as one man still speaks it.
    Whether or not something is in the dictionary doesn’t matter.

  8. thatpersonwhosalive -  May 7, 2012 - 6:12 pm

    Whenever I write book reports I don’t use spell check, since it is not fair to those who have handwritten them. I prefer, as well, to use more bizzare, uncommon words (I get better marks when I do).

  9. April -  April 26, 2012 - 9:58 pm

    I think it depends on the person using the spell check. Not everyone abuses spell check. For someone like myself, it is a great tool, and mostly eliminates the need for having it looked over by another person. However there are people out there that generally need to return back to the basics of the language in which they intend to write and commit it to memory.

  10. Anne -  April 13, 2012 - 6:08 pm


  11. Anne -  April 13, 2012 - 6:06 pm


  12. sithembiso -  April 12, 2012 - 9:38 am

    I personally think spell-check does more good than harm simply because we are living in a digital world, it is no longer a must to know the spelling, so, spell-check is playing a major role.I also think the short messaging will influence the mordern english in a major way. ?

  13. OnceInABlueMoon -  April 11, 2012 - 3:59 pm

    I think that the majority of people who use shorthand “chat” are doing it out of genuine laziness. What happened to good spelling and grammar? Where did the word “wassup” come from? People don’t capitalize either. Again, because they are too lazy to press Shift on their computer or smartphone. Spell checks make it so people think a machine will do their work for them. It irritates me when I see virtually scribbles everywhere. What worries me is that soon reading will no longer be a source of vocabulary, as the children who grew up with a limited lexicon use vague and bland words in literature. Of course, that’s just me being myself. A person who doesn’t like writing probably won’t write. What happened to English??? Again, spell checks are to blame. Sigh…….

    However, words are words. They don’t really have a “life span”. They could “live” forever, if given the chance. It’s all in using it. We should have a “Vocabulary Day” where we all pretend that the shorthands (wassup, vocab, cuz, gonna, wanna, kinda, dunno, etc.) don’t exist and we look in the dictionary and find a long word we really like and start using it (correctly, mind you) to drag it out of the dark, eerie place where it has been sitting these past years. Throw the shorthands there for a while.

    Spell checks aren’t really effective, anyways. I write Latin words (a language I’m learning) and it suggests the most ridiculous things. To tell you the truth, the spell check is probably worse off than we are. For example, I was typing a report on rhynchocephalians (a tuatara) and it said it was spelled incorrectly. I checked a dictionary just in case, because I can be careless at times. I must have checked twoscore (word I’m trying to use, I rather enjoy British words) times and nothing was wrong. I told it to “Ignore All”. I typed the word a second time and it corrected me again, even though I told it to ignore all. Now that I consider it, I think it meant to ignore all the words already inserted in the document. But I don’t know much about technology. I think spell checks are ridiculous.

  14. April -  April 11, 2012 - 1:56 pm

    If words are dying, it is because of the lazy people who don’t bother to learn how to spell them, therefore they do not use the words or wind up butchering them when they attempt to. This is the fault of not just the people whose spelling skills are very weak, but of their parents and of course, the educational system and the modern world as well. I catch spelling errors in all sorts of places, including in advertisements.

    About the thing with ‘color’ and ‘colour’. I think it is a mistake to compare those two. They are regional spellings. In the US it is usually ‘color’ that is used though some open-minded writers may use both.

    As for spell-check, if a person’s skill in spelling is decent, then it is merely a tool to catch those little typos that just happen from time to time or for when you aren’t sure if you’re remembering the spelling of a big word correctly. However, you must keep an eye on names and other similar things because if you don’t pay attention you will wind up with an unintended error. Although, isn’t that why you’re supposed to read over a piece and edit it as needed?

  15. Mark -  April 6, 2012 - 5:17 am

    I think words do dying, although they can still be found in dictionaries and records…..they no longer known by most people already. and as time goes by, will only exist in dictionaries and journals eventually…..

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