Spell checkers and pullet surprises

Still unrivaled for spelling accuracy

I have a love/hate relationship with spell checkers. They’ve saved me some embarrassment on more than one occasion, but as often as not, they simply frustrate me. They flag words that are perfectly correct, miss misspellings they should catch, and suggest alternate words that are totally irrelevant. The English language, of course, seems specifically designed to make hash of most spell checkers.

Several years ago I addressed the eccentricities of spell checkers, prompted by Fareed Zakaria’s question about whether, with all the spell checkers we have, children will still learn to spell. I included a clever little poem, “Ode to the Spell Checker,” author unknown. Had I been familiar with it at the time, I’d have used “Candidate for a Pullet Surprise” instead. Written in 1992, it has often been reprinted, sometimes in abbreviated or altered form, sometimes attributed to Anonymous, and/or titled “Owed to a Spelling Checker.” I’m pleased to reprint it in full with the permission of author Jerrold H. Zar.

by Jerrold H. Zar

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it’s weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

Each frays come posed up on my screen
Eye trussed too bee a joule.
The checker pours or every word
Too cheque sum spelling rule.

Bee fore a veiling checker’s
Hour spelling mite decline,
And if we’re lacks oar have a laps,
We wood bee maid too wine.

Butt now bee cause my spelling
Is checked with such grate flare,
Their are know fault’s with in my cite,
Of nun eye am a wear.

Now spelling does knot phase me,
It does knot bring a tier.
My pay purrs awl due glad den
With wrapped word’s fare as hear.

Too rite with care is quite a feet
Of witch won should bee proud,
And wee mussed dew the best wee can,
Sew flaw’s are knot aloud.

Sow ewe can sea why aye dew prays
Such soft wear four pea seas,
And why eye brake in two averse
Buy righting want too pleas.

Jerrold H. Zar
The Graduate School
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb IL 60115

Current address:
Department of Biological Sciences
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb IL 60115

Title suggested by Pamela Brown.
Based on opening lines suggested by Mark Eckman.

By the author’s count, 127 of the 224 words of the poem are incorrect (although all words are correctly spelled).

Published in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, January/February 1994, page 13.  Reprinted (“by popular demand”) in the Journal of Irreproducible Results, Vol. 45, No. 5/6, 2000, page 20.  See www.jir.com/pullet.html.

Journal of Irreproducible Results (new location 2004): Norman Sperling, Publisher, 413 Poinsettia Ave., San Mateo CA 94403, phone 650-573-7125, e-mail: nsperling@california.com, Web site: www.jir.com.

The poem also appears on pages 22‒24 in This Book Warps Space and Time, edited by Norman Sperling, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City MO.

10 thoughts on “Spell checkers and pullet surprises

  1. How a muse zing. Now how do I get my brain cells untwisted?

    This reminds me of the new app I got for my iPad the other day. It is the Merriam Webster dictionary, but it is not your father’s dictionary. You can speak the word and it usually finds what you’re looking for! It lists not only the definition, but the synonyms, so it is a thesaurus too. You can click on any word, whether in the alphabetical sequence or in the definition or synonyms and it will take you there instantly. It will pronounce aloud any word for you, often several acceptable ways. This is the future and there is no going back (unless the sun goes nova or a rogue nation blows us up).

    Jon Luc Piccard: Computer, write me an essay on the joys of wine. About 200 word will do.
    Computer: In English, or en Francaise?

    1. Love, love, love what computers can do for us — especially the audio pronunciations. Diacritical marks never work very well for me and usually leave me wondering if I’ve interpreted them correctly. With the audio, there’s no doubt. My other favorite use of audio is identifying bird songs and calls. Would you know that “Purdy, purdy, purdy” is what you just heard in your yard and was a cardinal? Or “Cheerily, cheeriup, cheerio, cheeriup” a robin?

    1. It couldn’t have been easy to write this … but the result certainly makes the point, doesn’t it? I wonder if any restaurant has added “pullet surprise” to its menu …

  2. I had a hard time reading the poem, believe it or not! My eye’s crossed and I was befuddled all the way through. It was almost like reading “Jabberwocky” and Mr. Zar is pretty amazing to have come up with this.

    1. Oh I thought it was crazy hard to read. I felt like I was learning to read all over again. It occurs to me belatedly that reading it aloud might have helped.

  3. I love that poem. Whoever comes up with a checker that know what I meant to say will get rich very quickly! But I’d be lost without the aid of my built-in spell checkers, and I’m amazed that so much is published with errors intact…

    1. Just shows the importance of education. Until spell checkers become mind readers (and I doubt we really want that from our machines), only the writer will know for sure if the correct word is in place.

... and that's my two cents