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A reader writes … By Merry Harris

June 29, 2001

When I was in fifth grade I was the reigning spelling champion — until felled by a trade name of a product I wasn't aware existed.

I fed the name into my new electronic speller and found I had spelled the word, Vaseline, correctly. I had been deprived of my championship laurels because my teacher thought it was "Vasoline."

Just to be sure the electronic speller was right, I checked my intensive care lotion. There it was, for all the world to see: VASELINE.

But this does not cause me to bestow implicit trust on my electronic speller. I have since tested its accuracy with words ranging from abracadabra to zoroasterism, with sometimes comical results. I would judge that my electronic speller was never fifth-grade spelling champion. It is as accurate at spelling as I'm at balancing my checkbook. Which isn't very.

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Ever since I tangled with modern math in college, numbers have been meaningless to me. I am afraid my electronic speller may have the same effect on my vocabulary.

Just for the fun of it, I deliberately misspelled words to see if the electronic speller would correct the spellings.

I tried "carcanoma," (carcinoma).

The machine gravely told me the correct spelling is "charisma."

Then I put in the correct spelling of "morose." The machine flashed "correct." Next I tried "moreso." The machine informed me it should be "morose."

My husband wanted to get into the game with words commonly found on public restrooms walls. My electronic speller knew all the vulgar words, so I decided to change over to a biggie — "prostitute." I deliberately misspelled it "prostatute" and told my husband the machine would probably tell me it was spelled "prostate."

I should've bet the farm on it, because that is exactly what happened.

The only insight my electronic speller has so far given me is that I habitually misspell "quatrain." I hope that's how it's spelled. I'm just too weak to lift my dictionary — which is why I bought the electronic speller in the first place.

I decided to use "firmament" as a test word, misspelling it "firmamint."

The spelling checker disdained my ignorance, brusquely informing me the correct spelling is "ferment."

The electronic speller apparently recognizes correctly spelled words more easily than misspelled words, but if one knows how to spell a word correctly, why use the speller?

When I typed in the correctly spelled word "pigiron," however, the machine decided it should be "pigeon" — which is what I probably am for buying the contraption.

I misspelled "photographic," replacing the second "p" with an "f" and the speller obligingly corrected my spelling to "phenotypic" — a word I had never before seen or heard. First, I erased "phenotypic" and entered "photographic," correctly spelled. The electric speller flashed "correct" on its viewing screen. Then I re-entered "phenotypic" and pressed the thesaurus button, which gave as synonyms "event" and "phenomenon."

But if I can't trust the speller, dare I trust the thesaurus?

As a further test, I entered the word "thesaurus" to determine whether that function recognized its own name. As synonyms it came up with "contentions" and "theses."

I gave up on the thesaurus and pushed the EZ-learn button. The viewing screen remained blank; no false advertising there. "Nothing" is easy to learn.

Not for anything am I going to push the calculator button. A non-mathematician has no business entering the numbers racket.

I haven't learned much that I didn't already know from my electronic speller. I already knew not to trust machines, which are reputed to have one iota of intelligence.

But if the device hasn't misinformed me on the correct spelling of "quatrain" I have learned something from it.

But it wasn't EZ.

MERRY HARRIS is an El Centro resident

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