Billy Gates And The Spellcheck Of Doom

Why then do people make this fatal assumption, that the spellchecker is always right? Some will be non-native speakers, who honestly think that when Spellcheck challenges them, it is their own word that must be wrong. In reality, Spellcheck will very frequently challenge a correctly spelled word and suggest the same word spelled incorrectly, or else a completely different word, and our poor naïve foreigner, who imagines that because Microsoft is an American company they must speak English, obeys their suggestion. Domiciled in the USA Microsoft may be, but the individuals responsible for creating the Spellcheck clearly have a very shaky grasp of English vocabulary, spelling and grammar. In other languages it is even worse, their dictionaries are even fuller of non-existent and downright impossible words as suggestions.

Others making the assumption that the English suggestions are worth following will be supposedly native speakers who attended some inner-city sink school and emerged as functional illiterates; others again may merely lack confidence, or simply misunderstand the Spellcheck dialogue box. This last, probably quite large, group Microsoft has handed a loaded gun for the murder of the language. They think that the software is there to improve their spelling and grammar, rather than being a tool usable only by those who have already mastered spelling and grammar.

The Word grammar check spots some mistakes that can result even from educated persons’ editing processes, such as subject/verb number disagreement – albeit with far too many false positives. For instance, it wants to make a verb agree with the nearest preceding noun, rather than the grammatical subject; in the preceding paragraph, for example, it desires me to write “the individuals responsible for creating the Spellcheck has”. The grammar check also suffers from a fanatical conviction that no sentence should ever be in the passive voice. This may be useful as a caution to bureaucrats, for whom an active sentence means arduous responsibility, but is wasted on the literate person. Finally, it cannot really parse sentences to discover which are sound and which should be stigmatised as ‘Fragment (consider revising)’ – it just thinks it can.

Apple has gone one step further. When you write text on the iPod Touch, and probably all similar devices, the machine will try to complete your words for you. Of course the machine usually gets it wrong – we are simply nowhere near being able to create the sort of AI that could make the right guess on the basis of the preceding text and its “knowledge” of the context and the user’s personality and affairs. Now, such completion seems to be the default setting, which some users seem unable to face altering. To write the correct words, therefore, you have to perform extra manual operations, which on a small virtual keyboard are an inconvenience, and so people forbear and so write the most spectacular gobbledygook.

Now, if this applied only to text written in MS Word and e-mails on the iPod, that would be one thing. But people write text in Word and then post it to websites, or even send it to publishers who print it “as is”. For many publishers appear to have dismissed their editors and proofreaders, and function merely as a kind of glorified binding service. I first saw this in SF, then in mainstream literature, and finally in some scholarly publications – both medieval historians who committed sins of malapropism that in my schooldays would have them in Detention writing Lines, and publishers who didn’t notice.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? All these people have apparently learned their English vocabulary, not from venerable printed books that have been edited and checked by literate persons, but from other people who have learned their English from the Internet and Bill Gates’ spellchecker. And the worst of it is that they have no idea that there is anything wrong. If they meet me, or some other Last-of-the-Romans types, they want to tell us that we are in error, that it should be the Mongol Hoard, and that kings should sit on throwns. If, however, we discard the Educated User Standard and consider that correct English is whatever most people write, then we must conclude that English has undergone the fastest change in its history, and has not only incorporated the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe but has shed a large proportion of its vocabulary.

Posted on July 6, 2011 at 11:03 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

9 Responses

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  1. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on July 6, 2011 at 15:37

    One should be careful about holding English up as the sort of language that should be kept pure and unsullied, this Roman Saxon Danish Norman pidgin. One prediction and one truth: English is the Latin of tomorrow, and the language is what the people speak and write. Beyond that, you have my blessing on your campaign to make people speak and write correctly.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on July 6, 2011 at 16:40

    I have this discussion a lot, about living and dead languages. I hold no brief for the Academie Française approach, much less for Norway, where the spelling is regulated every so often by Parliament (!). I also enjoy creative Americanisms (and let’s not forget the Australians, those masters of far-fetched simile). As tomorrow’s post may make clearer, though, there is a big difference between change as such and the disappearance of concepts.

    If I have to go round saying that I look forward to a fruitful cupertino with you, well, I suppose I can live with that, but suppose we lost the ability to understand the very concept of cooperation? I believe that it is in fact possible to eliminate concepts from the human mind, though not in the way Orwell posited and Microsoft is far from the only culprit.

  3. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on July 6, 2011 at 19:55

    Sapir-Whorf was consigned to the rubbish heap of linguistic poppycock a while back, and efforts to apply it are easily refuted. No-word-for-X lamentations notwithstanding, virtually every culture can express virtually every concept in a form appropriate to their language. Whether via simple words, or through circumlocutions, most intelligent adults are usually not unable to express themselves.

    Cooperation may disappear as a word, as might disinterested, fewer, affect, bated, enquire, canvass, hep, groovy, and thou, but that won’t mean we won’t be able to express mutually supporting effort, lack of stake in an outcome, not so many, and so forth. Again, keep fighting the good fight, but fear not.

  4. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on July 6, 2011 at 21:36

    You might enjoy Guy Deutscher’s experiments; Sapir-Whorff is not quite as dead as you say, and mere name-calling does not make it so. Indeed, when something is universally condemned by the laity as poppycock is the very time when it requires a re-evaluation. What everybody knows generally ain’t so.

    In any case, that a culture can express every concept if it puts its mind to it does not speak to whether lazy individuals of that culture will actually do so. I make my living in the interstices of two linguistic cultures, although closely related ones, and you’d be astonished at the blind spots. For example, Norwegian has but a single word for what we call “evidence” and “proof”. OK, you can circumlocute and qualify, but is it a coincidence that they don’t really understand the presumption of innocence and that they regard any acquittal as a sign that the system is broken? There was evidence/proof against him!

  5. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on July 6, 2011 at 23:24

    Well, poppycock might have been a bit flamboyant. I would posit, though, that all of the world’s cultures are doing just fine with their own languages, not in the least hampered by constraints of thought imposed by grammar or vocabulary. The S-W hypothesis may be founded on a mirage, as culture and patterns of thought will be seen to specify language rather than the other way around. I am interested, though, in how Norwegians give anyone the benefit of the doubt–or do you suggest that to Norwegians an accusation is all the proof that is needed?

    I have heard that Italian has no word for accountability. That is, no single, directly translatable equivalent to the English word accountability. Italian does have the word responsibility that intends to do the job of both, but as you know, English intends a non-trivial semantic difference between the two words. This is not to say that the Italians do not distinguish between who does the work and who gets fired.

  6. Written by urban
    on July 7, 2011 at 08:28

    Actually, Mr. F., languages ARE in a lot of trouble around the globe. The world’s cultures are NOT doing just fine with their own languages. Languages are going extinct all the time. Indeed a world is rapidly emerging in which there will be only three (maybe four) languages that matter, English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. Those with fluency in one or more of those will have a serious advantage over those without.

    No hand-wringing over everything that will be thereby lost is to be tolerated. It’s happening. It’s snowballing. Get used to it. Change is the norm. Degeneration seems to be normative as well.

  7. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on July 7, 2011 at 10:08

    Mr. F: I’ll try to give a brief answer, though I should be delighted were the New York Magazine to ask for a 10-page article.

    The Nogs make all the right noises, they can say “due process”, “burden of proof” and “presumption of innocence” in their language, but somehow it doesn’t get translated into action or even attitude. The main reason may not be the linguistic poverty I cited, but rather their exceptionalism; they are quite convinced that their own prosecutors are infallible and would never indict an innocent man. They hardly use bail, and one of the avowed reasons for pre-trial detention, which can last a year, is to prevent repetition of the offence — even though no one has yet proved that there was a first time. It’s a bit like Japan with no death penalty.

    The law book says that the criterion in criminal cases is “beyond reasonable doubt”, while in civil cases it is “preponderance of probability”. So far so good, but some judges apparently didn’t read the text at law school, because they apply preponderance of probability to a criminal case. So if one of these judges think that there is a 51% chance that you dunnit, or that it is marginally more likely that you dunnit than someone else dunnit, you go down. I seriously think that the evidence/proof identity plays a role in this.

    I agree that cultural patterns specify language, but suspect that it might be a reciprocating engine or a feedback howl. Another example: there is no way in Norwegian to call someone a lovable or interesting eccentric; for the word ‘special’, applied to a person, is an insult with the approximate value of weirdo or bag lady. ‘Original’ means village idiot. This is surely cultural, but that woeful cultural practice is reinforced every time they call you, Dwasifar, Urban or me ‘special’, which they inevitably will.

  8. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on July 7, 2011 at 14:57

    This is fun, and it could go on a long time.

    When I sat on a jury in a capital case years ago (state court, US), the judge took pains in his instructions to inform us that the arrest and indictment of the accused was not to be considered evidence of his guilt. This formality was, I interpreted, intended to emphasize that the police and prosecutor are not correct solely by the act of bringing charges. And as you know, the US Constitution protects our right to a speedy trial (which can be subverted in many ways, but the clause is still there) which lessens the opportunity to imprison the accused in order to make the streets safer. It appears the Anglo Saxons version of justice is a notch more virtuous than the Viking version, at least in good intentions.

    As far a languages in trouble, I really can’t get too worked up about that–apologies to Urban. Languages, like species, have suffered extinction and emergence for millennia. While on some level we might miss (as in long for) the language of the Phoenicians, the human race is not really impoverished by its absence. In addition, what is now English will become a dozen different languages in the next century or two, each with its own richness of variety and unique formulations of expression. Thus my point equating Latin and English. The same may be true of Spanish and Chinese.

  9. Written by Grinebiter
    on July 7, 2011 at 16:04

    “It appears the Anglo Saxons version of justice is a notch more virtuous than the Viking version, at least in good intentions.”

    Absolutely. I forgot to say that the prosecution can appeal an acquittal here, and usually does. IOW, they continue prosecuting until the court gets it “right”. 🙁 It is not possible to get people excited about this: they think that being Norwegian (as opposed to all those wops, dagos etc.) makes a prosecutor and judge unable to do injustice. Must be on the same chromosome as the blue eyes and blonde hair, what?

    Going back to Sapir-Whorff: you might say that if they weren’t so full of themselves as the Master Race, they would have taken greater care to develop two different words for evidence and proof. Fair enough, but confer what I said about feedback.

    I’m not with you on the Phoenicians, who might have had some unique way of perceiving. A little conceit of mine is that when we finally meet the ETs, their language will share a weird cognitive structure with some obscure Terran tongue, whose last speaker died yesterday.

    No contest on the divergence, though. That will happen, though the medium of international communication will remain bad English, Business English, or more probably bad Business English. The variety and richness will be confined to Singlish, Hinglish, Spanglish, and so forth as domestic languages.

    Urban, for this reason you’re quite wrong about the competitive edge: it is native-speakers who will lose out, because they insist on using literary vocabulary, idiom and colour that the average Chinese manager doesn’t understand, while the Chinese and the Latin American managers are at the same level in their English as second language. I find sometimes that the Kurd and the Vietnamese can understand one another’s Norwegian when the natives can’t; this is due to the greater mental openness of someone speaking a language not his own.

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