Autocorrect: How does it work? Do we need it?

Autocorrect is almost as old as personal computers. Even some of the earliest word processors had a spellcheck feature that suggested alternative words if a word you typed did not appear in its internal dictionary. Certainly, today, autocorrect has come a long way since the Cupertino effect. What’s the Cupertino effect? Well, in its early days, word processors would replace the word “cooperation” with “Cupertino” (the city in Northern California where Apple and other computer companies are headquartered). This spelling suggestion made its way to many documents published by the United Nations, NATO, and other official bodies, so the Cupertino effect is any inappropriate suggestion or autocorrection made by a spellchecker.

In the beginning autocorrect was primarily a smart spellchecker. If you typed “bfeore,” it replaced it with “before.” Then in 2007, Microsoft introduced the “contextual speller” (also known as Grammar Checker) for Office, and squiggly green lines began appearing in our Word Docs. Those green lines signified a problem between words not with just one word. So, if the verb of your sentence was not correctly conjugated for the subject, it would suggest a replacement. As in, “I leaves the office at 5” would be corrected to say “I leave the office at 5.” It could also correct words that were next to each other. For example, if you typed “shew ent,” it replaced it with “she went.”

Google Docs has taken a slightly different approach. In addition to offering spellcheck suggestions, it allows you to customize autocorrect, so that you can program abbreviations that you use often. You can instruct it to always replace NY with “New York” for example.

In the past two years smart phones have transformed (and some would say mangled) the English language with their autocorrect suggestions. They now suggest and automatically replace words as you type them. As you may have experienced, this can lead to some very serious miscommunication. (You can find numerous examples at the blog, Damn You, Autocorrect.) Smart phone autocorrect works a little differently than the traditional tools in a word processor. Because smart phone keyboards are so tiny and close together, autocorrect suggests alternative words that contain letters near the letters in the misspelled word. This means the range of error is much larger than with traditional autocorrect which is relying primarily on a dictionary and grammatical algorithms, rather than on letter proximity. Maybe this all means that we should read our e-mails and text messages ourselves before hitting send.

How do you technically describe what autocorrect does? Metathesis is the changing of one letter or sound for another letter or sound. Anatypsis is the insertion of a vowel in the middle of a word, more broadly called epenthesis. A paragoge is an addition of a sound at the end of a word, rather than the middle. So if you make an embarrassing autocorrect error, maybe using these terms to describe what happened will help you save face.

Do you have any stories about autocorrect incorrectly changing your words?