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July 05, 2017  |  MS Word: avoiding taboo words and other tricky vocab  |  6959 hit(s)

As most people discover, there's a class of writing error that spell check just can't help you with. Consider these examples:
  • We recommend that the company shit its resources for better output.
  • The event is open to the pubic.
Run these through spell check, and all is well. Only, of course, it's not.

As I recently learned, Word has a feature that can help find errors like this: an exclusion list. An exclusion list has words that are spelled perfectly fine, but that should be excluded from your documents.

The steps for creating an exclusion list are described in a great blog post by Sam Hartburn. The basic idea is that you add words, one per line, to .lex files in a specific folder on your computer. Here's the Windows location--see notes later for Mac instructions:

You can use any text editor to edit the file, including Notepad.

Note that there are different .lex files for different languages, and in fact for different flavors of each language—e.g. English US and English GB. (It's not inconceivable that there's a way to set up a global .lex file, but I don't know. Leave a comment if you know about that.)

Once you've got your exclusion list(s) updated, close and then reopen Word. Then when you run the spell checker, Word will flag words that are part of your exclusion list:

The examples I've shown here pertain to, you know, taboo vocabulary. Another excellent use for this feature is to flag words that you often mistype but are technically spelled correctly, such as manger for manager or potion for portion. Or you can use it for terms that should be avoided in your particular work, even if they're perfectly cromulent words in English. Really, you can use the exclusion list feature to have Word bring to your attention any word that you might want to double-check as part of your proofing.[1]

I do have a couple of notes for you about using exclusion lists:
  • Words in the list are case sensitive. (As indeed they are in the Word spelling dictionaries.) For example, it's probably a good idea to include both assed and Assed.

  • It's up to you to include all variant forms of a term, including plurals and verb conjugations: ass, Ass, asses, Asses, assed, Assed, assing, Assing, etc.

  • With regard to having different .lex files for different language variants, it will up to you to know what languages are in use in a given document. If a document has been through many hands, it's possible that different sections or paragraphs or even words might be flagged as having different language settings.
I learned about all this from a Twitter thread and specifically from the editor Ashley Bischoff. Not only did she introduce a bunch of us to exclusion lists by pointing to the blog post, she took the initiative to create a Google Docs spreadsheet for collecting words for potential inclusion. The doc is open to anyone. Please contribute!

PS Ashley has a second sheet in the workbook with instructions for both Windows and Mac users on how to update your exclusion lists.

[1] Microsoft alums will recognize this as similar to the Policheck tool, about which I've written before.

Sean Bentley   07 Jul 17 - 12:19 PM

Hi Mike,
A caveat: I'm finding that these steps don't work in Office 365 Pro Plus (desktop).
(a) No such folder or .lex file exists.
(b) Adding words via File > Options > Proofing > Customize Dictionaries seems to be mostly useless, even after restarting Word.
(c) I say mostly because spellcheck did catch "asses" but only to give me "ass's" and "asses'" as alternatives - but not "assess or asset, for example!

I'd love to have someone correct me if I'm doing something wrong.

Sean Bentley

mike   07 Jul 17 - 12:46 PM

Hi, Sean. Good point--I've been looking at Word 2013 only.

When you go to Options > Proofing > Custom Dictionary, does it display a file path for where it's storing the custom dictionary? I suppose that's the folder where the .lex files are or would be, but that's just a guess.

As for adding to the custom dictionary, I think that has the opposite effect of exclusion--it flags a term as ok, when actually we want a correctly spelled term to be flagged anyway. Unless I'm misunderstanding your scenario--?