As spell-check evolves, what are we losing?

Spell-check has been around for decades, and despite some improvements, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, it doesn’t always know what’s best. On the iPhone, for example, the autocorrect feature is simply blunderful. And it still can’t really help us when we type to instead of too

Ginger is bringing spell-check to the next level. Not only does it offer spelling and grammar checking, but its newest software offers a Sentence Rephraser. (Incidentally, rephraser is marked as a spelling error in Ginger. They must have meant to name it Sentence Refresher.) It’s a pretty sophisticated language processor that relies upon a corpus of “high-quality” Web writing to offer context-sensitive suggestions. As an aside, I think this software wins where iOS’s autocorrect fails because it makes suggestions rather than auto-corrections.

As quoted in a recent VentureBeat article, Ginger CEO Maoz Schact says, “We see ourselves as trying to raise the level of English from the pre-mobile days. We’re able to make you look good on your mobile with minimal effort” (emphasis mine).

Of course, when he says “pre-mobile” days, he really means “pre-mobile-post-print” days. As I’ve written about before, the obsession with spelling and grammatical correctness only came about in the past few hundred years. Before the printing press was invented, we were a lot more lenient.


This is an interesting, if predictable, reaction to the text-speak, typos and other casual constructions that have arisen in the speed-over-accuracy mobile age. True, it’s a natural extension of the iPhone (and maybe Android… I’m not familiar enough) autocorrecting r to are and u to you. It shows that, at least among certain groups, such neographic shortcuts are still looked upon disparagingly.

At least from some perspectives, and in some places. I, for one, find it overly pedantic when someone on IM insists on capitalizing every proper noun and including all their periods, and I know a lot of other people do, too. Such “errors” are not simply errors—to regard them as such would be to take too limited a view. They are actually information in themselves: They indicate the register (that is, the level of formality) of the speech, reflecting the relationship between the interlocutors, and they offer important contextual information. For example, if you receive an IM from your boss that’s rife with spelling errors and has no punctuation, you probably wouldn’t conclude that he’s a dumbo who doesn’t know how to spell follow-up, but rather that he’s in a big hurry and whatever he’s asked you for is urgent.

If we try to be “correct” at all times, we lose out on all this paralinguistic information. And that’s a shame: In speech, we can rely on speed, tone, facial expressions and gestures to provide this type of information, but in writing we have a lot less to go on. When we don’t have access to bold and italics, we (perhaps unconsciously) rely on “errors” to convey deeper shades of meaning. So in some cases, being “correct” can actually lead to misunderstanding. What we have to remember is that the type of writing that’s best always depends on the context. It doesn’t matter who you are: Diction appropriate for an academic paper is not appropriate in a text message to your significant other. In fact, language that feels overly formal for a given situation is likely to be interpreted as distancing. For example, we understand that sentences are “supposed” to end in periods, but if you end your text messages in periods, you’ll probably come off as angry.

Ginger wants to move from a standalone app to an OS-pervasive helper (and in Android, it already is), but that may not be for the best. Ultimately, it’s up to us humans to modulate our language… and, as in so many other instances, technology that we attempt to use as a shortcut might only screw things up.

If you liked this post, consider sharing it with your networks.

3 thoughts on “As spell-check evolves, what are we losing?

  1. ‘[I]f you receive an IM from your boss that’s rife with spelling errors and has no punctuation, you probably wouldn’t conclude that he’s a dumbo…’

    He might be a dumbo but he might also be careless or someone who puts haste ahead of accuracy. To me, it’s also a matter of courtesy. Does someone who types ‘hru?’ at me because they can’t be bothered asking ‘How are you?’ really care that much?

    1. I think you’re right: He’s putting haste ahead of accuracy. (We might conclude that he’s not a dumbo if he has had a history of spelling “follow-up” correctly in other contexts.) But aren’t there times when putting haste ahead of accuracy is, at the very least, begrudgingly acceptable? In an emergency, for example.

      My main point is that it totally depends on communicative context. Email is one thing, and IM is another. But even inside of IM, we can look at my example as something urgent and work-related, and your example as something casual/friendly. If you’re taking the time to ask how someone is, you’re probably not in that much of a hurry. So if that’s the case, I do agree that saying “hru” is a bit off-putting.

      Of course, interpretations vary idiosyncratically and culturally. There are, out there, people who communicate this way online, and it could either be that their imbeciles or that they have a different interpretive filter. A lot of people are probably imbeciles, but I’m interested in exploring the habits of the other ones.

  2. Also, when I use a full stop, it doesn’t mean that I’m angry. It means that I’ve finished a

Comments are closed.