Predictive Murder

By Virginia Parker Staat

 “Some things are so unexpected that no one is prepared for them.” 
~ Leo Rosten, Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day

After the death of her archaic computer, my 90-year-old mother recently purchased a new one. She is still adjusting. As an example, she always closes her emails to me with “Love you, Mother.” 

     In her last email, she wrote, “The computer thinks it is cute to add Nature to my Mother. I DON’T.” I nearly fell off the stool in laughter. Welcome, my dear mother, to the world of the infamous autocorrect.

     Autocorrect, also known as predictive text, is a technology meant to facilitate typing by suggesting words the user may wish to insert. These predictions are based on the context of words in the message coupled with the first letters typed of the next word. 

     How does it work? Alan Henry from explains, “In its most basic form, keyboard prediction uses text that you enter over time to build a custom, local ‘dictionary’ of words and phrases that you’ve typed repeatedly. It then ‘scores’ those words by the probability you’ll use or need them again.”

     I admit the theory of predictive text is a good one. The truth, however, is that it often murders our words. The end result can range from hilarious to downright embarrassing. In my own texts, I’ve seen mothballs replace the word motherconsultationfor consolation, and hineyfor honey… and those are the mild ones. How many times have each of us had to apologize for our autocorrect? If we are not vigilant in our editing, we can cause all sorts of relationships issues. 

     The Internet is replete with examples of texts and emails “gone bad.” Most are so vulgar that I won’t repeat them here. I assure you none were intended to be offensive. It makes me wonder if programmers played a joke on us all and gave autocorrect a dirty mind.

     And then there’s the issue of autocorrect spelling, including its myriad of problems, ranging from nuances to downright dangers. As a small example, it took me much too long to realize that my phone’s keyboard was set for UK English rather than U.S. spelling. No matter how hard I tried, realization was always spelled realisation. Theater was theatre, defense was defence, and behavior was behaviour. It was probably my own fault. I prefer using the British ouand some of the respellings over the sometimes more crass-looking U.S. versions. Because of it, the autocorrect feature on my phone may have assumed I’m British rather than Texan. 

     The spelling issue goes even deeper, however. In addition to its social improprieties, autocorrect is also wreaking havoc in our educational institutions. Rebecca Greenfield writes, “Today in studies that claim the Internet is ruining our lives, the BBC informs us that auto-correct and spellcheckers have turned us into a bunch of illiterate idiots.” She cites a twenty-year study supporting her notion, “The use of the wrong word jumped three spots to become the most common error in students’ papers; misspelling, which didn’t even place in the top twenty in 1988, jumped to number five.” 

     None of us wants to use the wrong word in our work, so what’s a writer to do? First, there are ways to make your autocorrect smarter. You can actually edit your device’s autocorrect dictionary and add or delete words. Personally, I think it would be wise to begin deleting certain anatomical parts and curse words.

     You can also use the text expansion feature to set a short string of characters for phrases you often use (and autocorrect persistently gets wrong). As an example, if you typelet me know what you thinkseveral times a day, you can set the text expansion feature on your device with an acronym so that whenever you type lmkwyt, it fills in the complete sentence. I must warn you, however, that the text expansion acronym can be used against you. A new Internet prank is to set up a friend’s device so that every time he or she types a word like sorry, some lengthy Star Trek dialog appears instead. 

     Is it all bad news? In a word: Yes. James Gleick writes, “One more thing to worry about: the better Autocorrect gets, the more we will come to rely on it. It’s happening already. People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell. One by one we are outsourcing our mental functions to the global prosthetic brain. I can live with that. We do it with memory, we do it with navigation, so what the he’ll, let’s do it with spelling.”

            My solution? I’m going to simply turn the darned feature off.