Un peu de math

A post showing how to use aspell and github actions to check spelling.

Setting up a spell checker for LaTeX (or anything really) via github actions


This post will describe using aspell http://aspell.net (a free and open source spell checker), a bit of python glue and github actions to setup spell checking for LaTeX documents (although this can be used to spell check other document types as well). We will also add a check that confirms the LaTeX syntax compiles.

Let us start with a directory with the following structure:

|--- tex/
    |--- README.md
    |--- main.tex

We will use that tex directory to keep all our LaTeX apart from the rest of the repository (and specifically some of the glue we need to get github actions to work).

The README.md files are not necessary for this but a good thing to have to document the contents of a directory.

Using aspell

We are going to use aspell as the spell checker. Installation instructions are available at http://aspell.net. It is both brew (macOS) and apt (ubuntu) installable:

$ brew instal aspell

If we want to run the spellchecker on the LaTeX documents we run:

$ aspell -t list < tex/*.tex

Whether or not there are misspelt words the exit code for that command will always be 0.

You can confirm this by running:

$ echo $?

A good tutorial/explanation of exit codes is https://shapeshed.com/unix-exit-codes/ but when we start using github actions a 0 exit code will be displayed with a big green tick and everything will be assumed fine. What we want is for a non zero exit code to be returned when there is any misspelt word. We will use some python glue for this.

Some Python glue

First of all we will create a python file known.py in the root of our directory with a set of extra known words (I'm pretty sure the dictionary aspell uses does not know about TikTok for example).

words = {"TikTok"}

aspell does directly have functionality to add a custom list of words but this approach has proven to have further benefits in my use cases (I won't go over those now).

We will now use the Python library invoke http://www.pyinvoke.org which can be used to create a set of tasks to be run.

First we add invoke to a requirements.txt file to make a note of it as a dependency:


There I am choosing to specify the lower bound of the version to use but you could be more or indeed less specific if you wanted.

We now write a tasks.py file which will include all the instructions to run aspell on the tex files but also return a non zero exit code if a word is not spelt correctly.

import subprocess
import pathlib
import sys

from invoke import task

import known

def get_files_to_check():
    A generator that returns paths of latex files.

    Note that this could be extended to yield other files as necessary.
    for path in pathlib.Path("tex/").glob("*.tex"):
        yield path

def spellcheck(c):
    Run the book through a spell checker.

    Known exceptions are in `known.py`
    exit_code = 0

    for tex_path in get_files_to_check():

        tex = tex_path.read_text()
        aspell_output = subprocess.check_output(
            ["aspell", "-t", "--list", "--lang=en_GB"], input=tex, text=True
        incorrect_words = set(aspell_output.split("\n")) - {""} - known.words
        if len(incorrect_words) > 0:
            print(f"In {tex_path} the following words are not known: ")
            for string in sorted(incorrect_words):
            exit_code = 1


We can now run:

$ inv spellcheck

And this will not only return a list of misspelt words but also have the correct exit code as necessary.

The full directory

The final directory will look like:

|--- tex/
    |--- README.md
    |--- main.tex
|... .github/
    |--- workflows/
        |--- prose.yml

The github actions configuration file

The final step is to write a configuration file with instructions for the commands to be run by Github Actions whenever we want it to check what we have committed.

In .github/workflows we put a prose.yml file:

name: Test prose



    runs-on: ${{ matrix.os }}
      max-parallel: 4
        os: [ubuntu-latest]
        python-version: [3.8]

    - uses: actions/checkout@v1
    - name: Set up Python ${{ matrix.python-version }}
      uses: actions/setup-python@v1
        python-version: ${{ matrix.python-version }}

    - name: Install python dependencies
      run: |
        python -m pip install -U pip
        python -m pip install -r requirements.txt

    - name: Install aspell (spell checker)
      run: |
        sudo apt-get install aspell aspell-en

    - name: Run spell checker
      run: |
        inv spellcheck

    - name: Install LaTeX
      run: |
        sudo apt-get update
        sudo apt-get install -y texlive-latex-extra
        sudo apt-get install -y texlive-xetex
        sudo apt-get install latexmk
        sudo apt-get install texlive-science

    - name: Check that document compiles
      run: |
        pdflatex tex/main.tex

Note that we could call this file whatever we want but I suggest prose.yml to indicate that it's a check on the writing. We could add other files with checks for code or other things.

The configuration file starts by giving instructions on the operating system we want to use. I suggest ubuntu-latest as opposed to a macOS or windows alternative as it is straightforward to install everything we need on ubuntu.

Every subsequent block in that file has a name: that indicates what is happening:

The final two tasks are not ones we discussed earlier:


This setup lets you use a github based workflow for checking and review of writing.

It can be further enhanced with other text checkers such as alex https://github.com/get-alex/alex or proselint http://proselint.com.

An example of this is my current programming course text which uses a number of different elements of continuous integration to help me avoid errors: https://vknight.org/pfm/about-this-book/how-is-this-book-written/main.html.

A blog about programming (usually scientific python), mathematics (usually game theory) and learning (usually student centred pedagogic approaches).

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