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Autocorrect and Spellcheck are Your Frenemies! (Don't Let the Robots Win!)

In this world of voice-to-text and email disclaimers that say “I typed this with my thumbs, please ignore any errors,” it’s easy to let typos slide in our quick communications.

When your partner texts to say that he’s already fed the hogs, but you don’t live on a farm, you can assume he probably meant the dogs.

When your boss sends you an email saying that she wants you to beet her in the conference room, you probably aren’t going to run out for a quick shopping trip thinking that she’s expecting you to bring borscht.

And, yes, we have all learned to live with those weird phrasings in our “we’ll assume we know that was just a speed-related typo” world.

Human Brains Trump Computers with Their Language Capabilities

The problem, however, comes in when authors decide to rely on these same pieces of technology for their manuscripts. Once you abdicate power from your own mental abilities and hand it over to the robo-language-cops, you’d better hope you have very forgiving readers (or a very patient editor).

Supposedly, autocorrect and spellcheck have your best interests at heart (or at the warm, squishy cores of their processor doohickeys, at least). They truly think (or algorithm-ize) that they’re giving you the best possible words for your situations. But consider the following real-life examples and then consider whether or not some computer got really bored and decided to mess with you.

From Microsoft Word, we were recently offered:

“As she tucked in her dead husband at night . . .” as a frightening alternative to the much cozier “dear” husband. (“A Rose for Emily,” anyone?)

Word also politely suggested to me this week that the French folie à deux (a term meaning two people sharing the same delusion) would be better presented as “folio dues” (a term I can only assume means “payment for membership in a folded sheet of paper”).

Where Spellcheck and Autocorrect Fail Miserably

And heaven forbid that you actually try to use a person’s name in your manuscript. Want to refer to the actor Benedict Cumberbatch? Be prepared for autocorrect to offer you “Benefactor Cummerbund,” among other things. Is there a Benefit Cumbersome in the house? Benedictus Cantus, anyone? (Note to prospective parents in the audience: Consider that we live in a world of autocorrect when naming your kid.)

Somewhere along the way, computers seem to have decided that “Shall we play a game?” was simply a way of life for them—and they’ve been working up to Global Thermonuclear War ever since. (80s references abound in my head.)

How Do We Fight Back?

We stop allowing autocorrect to automatically correct us. We turn off the autofill function. We re-read what we’ve written to make sure that what the computer suggested is actually what we wanted. We make our own decisions on the proper usages of “hire,” “higher,” and “hi ya.”

Sure, it’s great to have Word looking out for you and marking words it thinks might be misspelled or misused. But remember that Word is geared for something like an eighth-grade audience. When you go over its head, it starts to freak out—just like any other impetuous teenager.

So treat your computers as you would your teenagers: Give them some latitude, but also keep a tight rein on them. Make sure they learn all of the lessons you have to teach them—and continue to check up on them, just to confirm that you didn’t miss anything.

After all, if we’ve learned anything from The Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s that we can’t blindly trust the machines. Sure, a word processor or voice-to-text bot tweaking your messages might seem innocent, now, but in the same way that you don’t want your thirteen-year-old neighbor to drive your car, you also don’t want to find out what happens when your self-driving car decides that you really meant to say “Ram that truck” when all you said was “Open the trunk.”

I don’t know about you, but with that in mind, I’m thinking that some editorial decisions are definitely better kept in your own hands.


Originally posted on - 6/20/2016

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