Category Archives: Spelling

Autocorrect does have a good side, doesn’t it?

Wired has recently published an interesting piece on the history of autocorrect. One important point the author brings up is that, though we seem to focus on the bad side of autocorrect, it certainly is an amazing achievement. That we often miss it probably has to do with the salience of the negative (over the positive), a phenomenon known as negativity bias. (Why can’t we be happy?) The author fleshes this particular case out a bit further:

Given how successful autocorrect is, how indispensable it has become, why do we stay so fixated on the errors? It’s not just because they represent unsolicited intrusions of nonsense into our glassy corporate memoranda. It goes beyond that. The possibility of linguistic communication is grounded in the fact of what some philosophers of language have called the principle of charity: The first step in a successful interpretation of an utterance is the belief that it somehow accords with the universe as we understand it. This means that we have a propensity to take a sort of ownership over even our errors, hoping for the possibility of meaning in even the most perverse string of letters. We feel honored to have a companion like autocorrect who trusts that, despite surface clumsiness or nonsense, inside us always smiles an articulate truth.

Here’s another snippet from the article I found particularly interesting:

A commenter on the Language Log blog recently mentioned hearing of an entire dialect in Asia based on phone cupertinos, where teens used the first suggestion from autocomplete instead of their chosen word, thus creating a slang that others couldn’t decode. (It’s similar to the Anglophone teenagers who, in a previous texting era, claimed to have replaced the term of approval cool with that of book because of happenstance T9 input priority.)

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.

Thoughts on weirdly spelled names

What’s your name? Though historically the answer to that question was a sequence of sounds (or gestures, in the case of sign language), as of recent centuries it can just as easily be a sequence of letters. When I tell you here that my name is Tim, pronunciation has nothing to do with how I’m identifying myself here—only the letters T, I and M. Of course, I don’t think of my name as solely its pronunciation or solely its spelling; my name is a combination of both.

An interesting outgrowth of this is that there are some name pronunciations that have two or more corresponding spellings. “Is that Kate with a K, or Cate with a C?” someone might ask. Or, “Steve, is your full name with a V or a PH?” On some level we consider Stephen and Steven to be the same—but they’re not exactly equivalent. They’re different names.


How did this come about? Let’s take a closer look.

I see two major groups into which we can divide names with alternate spellings: Those that indicate ancestry or in-group status (identify), and those that seek to differentiate.

Consider the name Hugh. If you meet someone named Hugh, you wouldn’t be able to draw any conclusions on his ancestry simply based on his name, but that wouldn’t be the case if he actually spelled it Huw. Though the two names are pronounced the same, Huw is likely to be of Welsh descent (or have otherwise Cymrophilic parentage).

Another place we see these sorts of spellings is in the African American community. An online discussion mentions LeRoi, Jeighcob, Brookelynne, Makaylah, Rhyleigh and many others as names the participants have come across. These, of course, are all alternative spellings of otherwise common names. (We should take a moment to marvel at these spelling alterations; they demonstrate acute knowledge of English spelling patterns in that we can read them easily.) We could conjecture that black parents might choose to name their child with a nonstandard spelling to concretize in-group identity; these types of names tend to be unique to AAVE speakers.

It should be noted that these types of names are only a subset of a rich tradition of black names, many of which are invented altogether. This tendency was satirized in a 2012 Key and Peele video. There’s also been an interesting Reddit conversation on the topic.

The second group of names with alternate spellings don’t suggest heritage or group identity in any way; they simply differentiate. Examples of these are pairs like Sarah/Sara and Brian/Bryan.

We all encounter names like these on a daily basis, and they’ve made their way into pop culture: We get songs like Ben Folds’ “Zak and Sara,” in which we hear:

While Zak without a C tried out some new guitars
Playing Sara with no H’s favorite song

Another example that comes to mind is the character Jam’ie from the Australian mockumentary Summer Heights High. “My name is Ja’mie,” she says, introducing herself: “J, A, apostrophe, M, I, E. Weird name, I know, but you’ll get used to it.” You’d certainly get a mouthful if you accidentally called her Jamie. (Granted, Ja’mie is not pronounced like Jamie, so it may fit better into the “invented altogether” category of names, though it’s clearly satirical.)

Where do these types of names come from? They seem to be a way to differentiate. This seems obvious, but it’s actually a bit strange if you think about it: It would seem that names originally came about as a way to identify things—to say what something is. But these alternate spellings instead emphasize what this person is not. “Sara” might be somewhat like a Sarah, but she is most decidedly not a Sarah.

An interesting consideration is that we don’t name ourselves; our names come from our parents. Alternatively spelled names, then, may be parents’ attempts to give their child a certain quality of differentiation. A badge that says, “My child is unique.” Could it be, then, more about the parent wanting to differentiate themselves, rather than the child?