Many users become frustrated by Word’s proofing tools,
especially the spelling checker. It doesn’t recognize words they know are right,
or it insists on recognizing U.S. spellings when they want U.K. spellings, or
they want Word to ignore certain kinds of text that aren’t really words at all.
They become understandably exasperated with Word’s know-it-all attitude. Who’s
in charge here, anyway? The question is, who is to be master,*
and it is possible to get the upper hand!
Important Note: This article is primarily
applicable to the English spelling checker. Proofing tools for other
languages vary considerably.
Shortcut: start here
What follows is a detailed explanation of how Word’s
spelling checker works and how to solve specific problems. In most cases,
however, this is all you need to know:
The “Do not check spelling or grammar” property, which
determines whether a word is spell-checked or not, is a character
property. It can be applied to specific words, just like bold or italic.
This means that sometimes one part of a paragraph will be spell-checked and
the rest not. This formatting can ride in on pasted text (especially if it
is pasted from the Web) and, just like bold or italic, will persist when you
continue typing unless it is turned off.
The next section explains how to access the Language
dialog, where you can change the settings for spell checking. In most cases
when some misspelled words are not being flagged as incorrect, you can solve
the problem by selecting the entire document (Ctrl+A to Select All)
and clearing the check box for “Do not check spelling or grammar.” If the
box is shaded (indicating mixed conditions), you will have to click it twice
to completely clear it.
How Word’s spelling
Solving spell check problems
Too little spell
Too much spell
with the custom dictionary:
Let’s start with an explanation of how Word’s spelling
checker works. It is not really very sophisticated. Essentially, Word has a very
large (but not infinite) list of words to which it compares each “word” you
type. If it doesn’t find a match, it tells you that the word is misspelled. In
compounding languages such as German or Dutch, Word's lexicon contains possible
components of compound words, and the spelling checker verifies these individual
components in much the same way that the English spelling checker looks at the
separate parts of hyphenated words.
The lists used by the spelling checker are in “lexicons”
(files with the .lex extension) identified by language. For example, Mssp3en.lex
is the lexicon for most varieties of English; there is a separate lexicon for
Australian English, Mssp3ena.lex. These files are in a proprietary format and
cannot be read or edited by users.
The importance of language
The lexicon Word uses depends on what language you have
selected for the text. By default, the English edition of Word comes with
proofing tools (spelling and grammar checkers, a thesaurus, and a hyphenation
file) for English, French, and Spanish (several flavors of each). Other
languages are included in other editions. If you want to check spelling and
grammar in a language not included with your edition, you must purchase the
Office Proofing Tools package for your version of Office. These are usually
available from Microsoft only for the most recent version of Office, but
currently (2016) it is possible to get them for both Office 2013 and Office
2016. For Office 2013, they can be downloaded free
here. For Office 2016, get them
Figure 1. The Language dialog
The language applied to text is selected in the Language
dialog. Access it as follows:
Word 2003 and earlier: Tools |
Language | Set Language
Word 2007: Review | Proofing | Set Language
Word 2010 and above:
Review | Language | Language | Set Proofing Language
In Figure 1, note that you can tell from the
list in this dialog which languages have proofing tools installed (those with
the ABC+check icon). In this
example, you could format your text as Estonian, but you would not be able to
check spelling or grammar because the proofing tools for Estonian are not
Important Note: Although the Language dialog
lists numerous varieties of “English,” the only dialects actually supported
are Australian, Canadian, U.S., and U.K.; all others will default to one of
those four, usually U.K. English. This also applies to other languages: for
example, there is no difference between German (Germany) and Germany
(Austria); the same lexicon is used for both.
If the language of your text doesn’t match the language of
the proofing tools being used, then obviously you won’t get very good results. A
common complaint of British users is that Word insists on using U.S. English
instead of U.K. English, even though they have selected U.K. English as the
default. There are two issues here:
No matter what language you think you have chosen as the
default in Word, it may not “stick” unless you have selected the same
language as the default in Windows (Control Panel | Regional Options |
Input Locales or Control Panel | Regional and Language Options |
Languages | Details... or Control Panel | Region and Language |
Keyboards and Languages | Change keyboards...). For more on this, see “Set
the desired language in Windows.”
Language is a character format that travels with text.
If you have selected U.K. English as the language of your document and paste
in text formatted as U.S. English, the language at the insertion point
(after the pasted text) will be U.S. English, and that will be the language
of any text you add at that point. One way to avoid this problem is to paste
as unformatted text.
Important Note: If your text changes language
without warning (and not just when you paste text from another source), make
sure you have Detect language automatically disabled in the
In addition to the built-in “lexicon” in a given language,
Word can use user-defined “dictionaries,” to which you can add
words of your choice. The default user or custom dictionary is the Custom.dic
file. When you right-click on a “misspelled” word and choose Add to
Dictionary, this is the file to which it is added. It’s a simple text
file that you can edit.
For all practical purposes, you can have as many custom dictionaries as you like
(although there is a maximum number, it is very unlikely that you will exceed
example, you might have a number of specific technical terms that you use only
for certain documents. You could create a separate dictionary for these terms
and load it as needed. To create such a new dictionary, follow these
Open the Spelling & Grammar Options (Word 2003
and earlier) or Proofing Tools Options (Word 2007 and above), as
Figure 2a. The
Spelling & Grammar Options dialog in Word 2003
Figure 2b. The Proofing Options dialog in Word 2010
Click on Custom Dictionaries…
In the Custom Dictionaries dialog, click New…
Figure 3a. The
Custom Dictionaries dialog in Word 2003
Figure 3b. The
Custom Dictionaries dialog in Word 2010
In the Create Custom Dictionary dialog, choose a
name for your dictionary and click Save.
Figure 4a. The
Create Custom Dictionary dialog in Word 2003
Figure 4b. The
Create Custom Dictionary dialog in Word 2010
By default, your new dictionary will be checked in the
Custom Dictionaries dialog, which means that the words in it will be
added to those in your lexicon file and Custom.dic when Word compares a word
you type to its lists.
If you want to be able to add words to your new custom
dictionary as you work, select it in the Custom Dictionaries dialog
and click Change Default. This will set your new dictionary as the
default dictionary so that when you right-click on a “misspelled” word and
choose Add to Dictionary, it will be added to this dictionary instead
of Custom.dic. Don’t forget to reset Custom.dic as your default dictionary
when you’re working in ordinary documents.
You can also add words to your new custom dictionary all
at once. In the Custom Dictionaries dialog, select your custom
dictionary and click Modify... or Edit Word List.... In the ensuing dialog, type a word in
the box at the top and click Add. Repeat as desired. The words will
be added in alphabetical order.
Figure 5. A
custom dictionary opened for modification
Some add-in dictionaries, such as dictionaries of medical
and legal terms, are available for purchase. You can add such a dictionary by
clicking Add in the Custom Dictionaries dialog, navigating to its
location on your hard drive, selecting it, and clicking OK in the Add
Custom Dictionary dialog. If you have created an
you can use this method to add it to the Custom Dictionaries list to make it
more easily accessible for adding or removing entries.
Figure 6. The
Add Custom Dictionary dialog
In recent versions of Word you have a number of options
about how Word checks spelling. If you have “Check spelling as you type” checked
in the Spelling & Grammar Options or Proofing Options dialog (see Figure 2), Word will put a
wavy red underline under words it doesn’t recognize. If you opt not to check
spelling as you type, you can still run the spelling checker explicitly by
pressing F7 or through the menu or Ribbon as follows:
Important Note: Spell checking is not available
in protected forms. Word will not mark misspelled words with a wavy
underline, pressing F7 has no effect (not even an error message), and
Spelling and Grammar is disabled (dimmed) on the Tools menu. This
is by design. You can spell-check protected forms using a macro, but this
will require that users of the form be willing to enable macros. For
instructions, see "How
to enable the spellchecker in a protected document."
If no words are being marked as misspelled, even though you
have "Check spelling as you type" enabled, it may be that you are an extremely
good speller and not using any words that Word doesn't recognize. More likely,
there is something wrong. Check the Spelling & Grammar Options or Proofing
Options to make
sure that "Hide spelling errors in this
document" is not checked (see Figure 2).
If it is not, the usual problem is that the text
has been formatted as “Do not check spelling or grammar” (see
Figure 1). To
correct this, select the entire document (Ctrl+A), apply the desired
language to it, and clear the check box for “Do not check spelling and grammar”
in the Language dialog.
Important Note: This box must be completely
clear. If it is shaded, this indicates that some of the selected text
has the “Do not check” property applied.
While clearing the check box for “Do not check spelling and
grammar” for all the text in the document will provide a solution for the
currently selected text, there are two caveats to be aware of:
When you add text to the document, especially if you
paste text from the Web, the “Do not check spelling and grammar” property
may return, and you will have to repeat the process above.
One reason that “Do not check spelling and grammar” may
resurface is that it is defined as part of a style. In some styles, such as
a style used for programming code or other text that is not natural
language, it makes sense not to check spelling. But if this property doesn't
belong in a given style, you can remove it. To do this, you must access the
Modify Style dialog for the given style; for instructions, see
to modify a style in Word.” In the Modify Style dialog, click
Format, then Language..., and clear the box for “Do not
check spelling and grammar.” Click OK to return to the dialog. To
save this style change to the attached template, in Word 2003 or earlier,
check the box for “Add to template.” In Word 2007 or above, select
the radio button for “New documents based on this template.” Click OK
to close the dialog.
If you have Word 2007 or above and find that the spelling checker
just does not work at all—that is, it doesn't mark any words as misspelled, and
running the spelling checker with F7 doesn't find any errors—there are
two more steps you can try:
- Click on Office Button | Word Options | Add-Ins | Manage: Disabled
Items (Word 2007) or File | Options | Add-Ins | Manage: Disabled
Items (Word 2010 or above). If you see any disabled items that relate to spelling, try
If the previous suggestion doesn't help, then there is a
Registry edit that may. If you are not comfortable editing the Registry,
then you can use the Microsoft-provided "Fix it" in
this article. To
perform the edit yourself:
a. Close Word and any other open applications.
b. Click on Start | Run | Open and type "regedit" (without the
c. If the key HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Shared Tools\Proofing
Tools\1.0\Override exists, delete it.
d. Exit the Registry Editor.
e. Restart your computer.
Important Note: Although in most cases this
operation will correct the problem, it could create a new one if you have
installed a third-party spelling checker. Third-party companies use the
Override key to redirect spellchecking to their speller instead of the
built-in Office lexicon. But if the third-party checker works only for
English, say, but disables the built in spell checker for all languages,
then spell checking might work in English (using the third-party speller)
but not in French or Spanish. Deleting the Override key will restore
function for English, French, and Spanish (using the built-in speller) but
will disable the third-party add-in.
Sometimes, even though “Check spelling as you type” is
enabled and some words are marked as misspelled, you will type or see a word
that you know is misspelled, but Word does not mark it or find it when you run
the spelling checker. The usual reason for this is that that portion of the text
has been formatted as “Do not check spelling or grammar.” You may even get a
message from the spelling checker that "The spelling and grammar check is
complete. Text marked with 'Do not check spelling or grammar' was skipped." Remember that language
is a character format that can affect even small selected portions of your text.
Although most of your document may have the correct language applied, it's
possible for certain portions of it to be formatted as "Do not check spelling or
grammar." You can use
this to your advantage, but when you do want it checked, select the problem
text (or the entire document) and clear the check box for "Do not check spelling
or grammar" in the Language dialog.
Occasionally you will right-click on a misspelled word and
choose Ignore All, then later think better of it. Once you’ve told Word
to ignore the word, though, how do you get it to see the word as misspelled
again? Go to:
Word 2003: Tools | Options | Spelling & Grammar
Word 2007: Office Button |
Word Options | Proofing
Word 2010 and above: File | Options | Proofing
and click Recheck
Document. You will get the message box shown in Figure 7. Answer Yes
and your ignored word will again be marked as misspelled.
Recheck Document message box
Sometimes you would like Word to call attention to a word
that you frequently type when you intend to type a different, similar word. For
example, suppose you often type “abut” when you mean “about.” “Abut” is an
actual word, so it isn’t misspelled, but chances are that in most cases it’s a
typo. You could add “abut > about” as an AutoCorrect entry, but there may be
times when you would actually have a use for the word “abut,” so you don’t want
to burn your bridges—just make sure that you have some warning that you may have
used the wrong word. You can accomplish this by adding the word to an “exclusion
dictionary.” This is also an effective way to deal with variant spellings
that, while they may be generally accepted as correct, you prefer not to use. If
you have Word 2007 or above, you will probably find you have less need for an exclusion
dictionary, as the contextual spelling checker in that version will handle many
of the “errors” that you would have added to an exclusion dictionary in previous
This should be an easy one to troubleshoot: clearly the
language of the text doesn’t match the language of the proofing tools. If you’re
typing in French and spell-checking in English, there may be a few words that
will overlap, but for the most part you’ll have “misspellings.” Press Ctrl+A
to select the entire document; then, in the Tools | Language | Set Language
| Proofing | Set Language in Word 2007; Review | Language | Language |
Set Proofing Language in Word 2010), select the correct language if proofing tools are available. If you
don’t have proofing tools for the language installed, you can
hide the spelling errors.
There are at least four possible reasons for a word to be
marked as a misspelling even though you think (or know) it is spelled correctly:
It’s not in the lexicon. If it’s not in
the list Word compares words to, it will be marked as misspelled; if it’s a
word you use frequently, you can add it to
your custom dictionary.
It’s formatted as the wrong language. If you type
“civilisation” (a perfectly correct U.K. English spelling) but the language
applied to the word is U.S. English, it will be marked as incorrect. Select
the text and apply the correct language.
The word has been placed in an
The word contains nonstandard characters.
If the word is a contraction such as can’t or won’t, this is a
likely possibility. Text imported from WordPerfect often uses characters
from the WP Typographic Symbols font for apostrophes, quotation marks,
dashes, and so on. If you don’t have the font installed, you’ll see
inappropriate characters from your text font instead. If you do have the
font installed, you’ll see what appears to be a correctly spelled word, but,
because the apostrophe is a symbol Word doesn’t recognize, it doesn’t
recognize the word. The error can be corrected by substituting an apostrophe
from the text font. You’ll also have this problem if you use AutoCorrect to
replace the combinations ff, fi, and fl with the “ligature” characters that
appear in some fonts. These can improve the appearance of typeset pages but
will cause Word to mark words as misspelled.
There are times when you don’t want to see spelling errors
in your document, or you don’t want others to see them. There are several
approaches to this problem, with varying effect on other documents and systems.
The options can be summarized as follows:
Option 1: Disable “Check spelling as you type.”
Option 2: Enable “Hide spelling errors in this
Option 3: Format the text as “Do not check
spelling or grammar.”
Does this affect all my documents?
Will I see wavy underlines?
Will others see wavy underlines?
Probably; depends on local setting
Will I or others be able to check spelling
Option 1: Disable “Check spelling as you type.”
If you clear the check box for “Check spelling as you type” in the
Spelling & Grammar or Proofing Options, spelling
errors will not be marked in any document on your machine, but you will
still be able to run the spelling checker explicitly (using F7 or
Tools | Spelling and Grammar or, in Word 2007 and above, Review | Proofing | Spelling &
Grammar) whenever you want to. If you send the
document to someone else who does have “Check spelling as you type” enabled,
spelling errors will be marked on the recipient’s machine. This option is
best when you don’t want to be distracted by the underlines or when your
system does not run efficiently when “Check spelling as you type” is
Option 2: Enable “Hide spelling errors in this
document.” If you check the box for “Hide spelling errors in this
document,” only the present document is affected, and spelling errors will
be hidden on any machine on which it is opened, regardless of the Spelling &
Grammar Options settings. You can still run the spelling checker explicitly
to check spelling, but recipients will not see any words marked as
misspelled. This is a good option when a document contains many proper names
or technical terms because, even
if you add a “misspelled” word to your custom dictionary, unless it is in
the recipient’s custom dictionary as well, the word will be marked as
misspelled on the recipient’s machine.
Option 3: Format the text as “Do not check spelling
or grammar.” If you select all the text, go to the Language
dialog, and check the box for “Do not check spelling or grammar,”
spelling errors will not be marked even if you have “Check spelling as you
type” enabled, and you will not be able to check spelling by running
the spelling checker explicitly. This setting affects only the present
document, and it applies even on another machine. As explained in the next
section, this option can be used selectively.
Sometimes you will have a document in which certain kinds of
text will always be “misspelled.” Even if you have exempted words in UPPERCASE,
words with numbers, and Internet and file addresses (see Figure 2), there will
still be text that the spelling checker will mark because it is in another
language (for which you don’t have proofing tools) or because it is not a real
language (programming code, for example, or equations that don’t contain
numbers). This is an issue, for example, for an author writing a book about
programming who must include code snippets. Or the issue may be just a lot of
The solution to this problem is to format the text as “Do
not check spelling or grammar.” Remember that we said that the language applied
to text (and this includes the “(no proofing)” language) is a character format.
It can be applied to a unit as small as a single letter, so it can certainly be
applied to specific words or paragraphs.
The easiest way to apply this formatting is to
apply a style that is formatted as “Do not check spelling or grammar.” If
the text of this type will be complete paragraphs, this can be a paragraph
style; if the text will be included in paragraphs of ordinary text, a character
style can be used. To add the “Do not check spelling or grammar” property to an
existing paragraph style (such as Plain Text, often used for code snippets), in the Modify Style dialog, click Format | Language
and check the box for “Do not check spelling or grammar.”
Figure 8. The
Modify Style dialog box
Often you will want
to create a "no proofing" character style to apply to selected text. Such a
style should be based on “Default Paragraph Font so that you can apply it to any
style of text without changing the font formatting.
Figure 9. The Create New Style from
Formatting dialog to create a character style
Important Note: Since you are basing your style on Default Paragraph Font, you would expect the resulting style
description to be "Default Paragraph Font + Do not check spelling or
grammar." If you try this, however, you will find that it does not work.
Ironically, even though what you want your style to do is suppress use of
the proofing tools, you have to explicitly tell Word what language's
proofing tools you do not want to use! This means that you must
select a language in the Language dialog before "Do not check..." will
become active. The result will be a style defined as, say, "Default
Paragraph Font + Do not check spelling or grammar, English (U.S.)."
Helpful Tip: When you tell Word not to check
the spelling or grammar of selected text, you exempt it from all the
proofing tools, including the hyphenation file. If you have enabled
automatic hyphenation in a document and want to prevent certain words from
being hyphenated, you can do it by formatting them as “Do not check spelling
or grammar" (using a character style as described above).
Word’s built-in proofing tools have the ability to recognize
all tense forms of an included verb, plurals and possessives of nouns, and any
combination of caps and lowercase. Custom dictionaries don’t have this ability.
If you add a noun all in lowercase, Word will recognize it when capitalized, but
if you capitalize it in the custom dictionary, it will not be recognized when lowercased. Nor will it be
recognized if you make it plural or possessive; you must add all these variant
To remove a word from a custom dictionary, open the
Custom Dictionaries dialog, select the appropriate dictionary, and click
Modify. Select the incorrect word, click Delete, then click OK.
If you right-click on a “misspelled” word and choose Add
to Dictionary and get the error message, “The custom dictionary is full. The
word was not added,” this can indicate that the dictionary is corrupt or the
spelling checker files are damaged; see
this Microsoft Knowledge Base article. In no case does the message actually
mean that the custom dictionary is full—at least not in recent versions of Word
(there is a maximum size of 64 KB, but it's unlikely you'll reach that, though
you might experience performance issues if the dictionary becomes very large).
If, however, the Add to Dictionary command is
unavailable (dimmed on the shortcut menu), this indicates that the language of
the default dictionary differs from the language applied to the word you’re
trying to add. By default, Custom.dic is set to All Languages; if you change it
to, say, French, you will not be able to add an English word. This error might
easily arise if you had created an additional custom dictionary for specific
terms, set the language to something other than All Languages, set it as the
default temporarily, and forgotten to reselect Custom.dic as the default.
Note: It has also been reported that sometimes
the Custom.dic file inexplicably gets flagged as Read-only. The solution to
that problem is to select the file in Windows Explorer, right-click, choose
Properties, and clear the check box for "Read-only."
*Astute readers will
recognize the allusion to this passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you
don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’”
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a
scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make
words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be
This article copyright © 2007, 2008,
2009, 2011, 2014, 2016 by
Suzanne S. Barnhill. I am grateful to
Stefanie Schiller, Thierry Fontenelle, and Lisa Decrozant of
Microsoft's Natural Language
Group, whose comments helped me make this article more accurate. Any errors
that remain are my own.