2 Feb 2023

The perils of autocorrect

Autocorrect technology owes its origins to the word processing programmes that evolved in the 1980s, when language was checked against a dictionary to make sure the spelling was correct.

Today, users of word-processing programmes have all become accustomed to the wavy red lines that alert us to misspelt words, and we are increasingly dependent on the computer to monitor our grammar and spelling. A study in 2012 revealed that two-thirds of adults in Britain could not spell ‘necessary’ and one third ‘definitely’ without using the spell-check feature.

While these handy resources may have been detrimental to our spelling abilities, making us lazy and dependent, most spell-checker facilities will alert us to misspelt words or ungrammatical writing and will offer us alternative suggestions, which we then must opt to use. It has been argued that this process is a form of education, which alerts us to our writing errors and may encourage us to learn from our mistakes. Spell-checkers are something of a blunt instrument; assessing words and phrases with no contextualisation inevitably leads to mix-ups.  No system is perfect, and we have all learnt the hard way that documents need to be carefully proofread before they are sent out.

The autocorrect feature on our smartphones is much more problematic. This predictive technology dates to the 1990s and, in the smartphone era, has become increasingly sophisticated. The language model on phones automatically suggests words and phrases when the user starts to type, based on algorithms that analyse how people use language. To remain effective, auto-correct programmes must continuously update, relying on internet data from consumers to harvest the latest vocabulary trends.

As texting has become the default method of communication for many people, autocorrect has become a major feature in all our lives. Our priority, in all our communications, appears to be speed and convenience and predictive technology undoubtedly makes texting faster. It is particularly useful when it comes to using apostrophes when contracting words (that’s, it’s, we’ll, you’ve etc) which, if autocorrect is off, requires the user to switch keyboard views to access punctuation, a frustrating process that slows down even the fastest texter and is liable to lead to the total abandonment of proper punctuation.

But any smartphone-user will be horribly familiar with the myriad mistakes that autocorrect can make. These range from the frustrating (“I hope you’re we’ll”) to the disconcerting (“I’m sure our mating (meeting) will be very productive”). These errors are blindingly obvious, but our texts are frequently riddled with them because we are rushed, careless and overly trusting of technology, and we send autocorrected texts without checking them first.

Many autocorrect errors are bizarre and surreal, rendering our texts meaningless and often requiring a follow-up text explaining the autocorrect mis-function and apologising for the confusion – hardly a time-saving process. But in some cases, the autocorrect errors are genuinely offensive and liable to distress or offend the recipient and require more abject apologies.

There is, of course, one simple way of avoiding all these pitfalls, which is to read your texts carefully before pressing ‘send’. This means sacrificing a few seconds of instantaneous communication, but a tiny delay will ensure that your texts are lucid and unambiguous. This is particularly important when you are texting work colleagues or clients – silly errors will make you look slapdash and negligent, which will hardly enhance your professional reputation.

While we have all come to accept that, much of the time, text messages are abbreviated and colloquial, they are a highly effective means of communication, and their primary function should never be impeded by laughable or embarrassing errors.


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