Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

When Autocorrect is Not So Correct

My latest On Language column for The New York Times Magazine explores a topic that any owner of smartphone knows too well: the often bizarre behavior of autocorrect, which can "miscorrect" what you type into unexpected and outrageous output.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote in Slate last year, "Autocorrect gets no respect. Every day, you dash off dozens of messages on your mobile phone, and most of the time, you do it wrong—you mistype, misspell, or make some other kind of error that's bound to cause you great embarrassment. In the vast majority of cases, your phone steps in to save the day." But, as New York Times tech-blogger David Pogue notes, when autocorrect gets it wrong, "it can be really wrong."

Now the cataloging of the most embarrassing smartphone miscorrections has become something of a cottage industry, with the wildly popular website Damn You Auto Correct leading the way. I interviewed DYAC's founder Jillian Madison for the column, and she sounded a bit frazzled by the hundreds of submissions that she receives every day. (There's even a DYAC app for the iPhone that lets you submit screen grabs of egregious exchanges directly to the site.) DYAC is spawning a book, to be published by Hyperion in March, so there's clearly an endless appetite for the unintentional humor that our phones are providing us.

I've had a long-standing interest in the linguistic trouble that "helpful" computer algorithms can get us into. Automated spellchecking in word-processing programs can often create howlers, though perhaps with less frequency than smartphone autocorrect. The so-called "Cupertino effect" has been an unfortunate element of spellchecking ever since Microsoft Office 97 couldn't recognize unhyphenated cooperation and instead replaced it with Cupertino, the name of a California town. I first learned about the Cupertino effect in 2006 from a former writer for the European Union. You can still manage to find documents online from the EU and other international organizations that have the word Cupertino where cooperation is intended, such as this NATO document that has the line, "The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful." (I spoke about the Cupertino effect and other editorial miscorrections on the National Public Radio show Radiolab last year, in an episode entitled, "Oops.")

With the advent of smartphones with virtual keyboards, particularly Apple's iPhone and the Android phones from Google, the Cupertino effect is running amok on an unprecedented scale. And there are many obstacles faced by designers of smartphone autocorrect features that earlier spellchecker designers didn't have to deal with. For instance, as I mention in the column, there's the problem of words with letters repeated for emphasis, a common feature of text-ese. Thanks to autocorrect's tendency to look for fat-finger errors, yeahhhh can get changed to uranium because y is close to u on the virtual keyboard, e is near r, and h is in the vicinity of i, u, and m. You can test this out yourself: try typing wheeeeeee with seven e's into your phone and you might get autocorrected to shredders; add one more e and whereafter may instead be the suggested substitution.

Despite all of this, the situation with smartphone autocorrect is destined to get better. Early word-processing spellcheckers had a lot of hiccups, but their utility has been enhanced with innovations like the "contextual speller" rolled out for Microsoft Office 2007, which can catch correctly spelled words that are erroneous in context (I've called such stealth errors "miss steaks," based on a famous spellchecker poem). As the storage capacity of smartphones increases, they'll be able to work off of such contextual data to provide more accurate correction of our input. Until then, however, let's all enjoy the laughs that wayward autocorrect can generate.

You can hear me talk about autocorrect goofs in my recent appearance on the NPR show "Talk of the Nation" here.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday January 14th 2011, 8:59 AM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Voice-recognition programs can also produce some real howlers, especially if one's accent is thick (as is my Boston accent). Sometimes using the Voice Grocery List on my smartphone provides comic relief, but other times it's just not worth the frustration. I'm usually surprised when the app gets it right the first time. I'm still waiting for the Star Trek-like voice-recognition programs to be available.
Friday January 14th 2011, 12:59 PM
Comment by: Bob K. (Sun Lakes, AZ)
Great article! I've been warning my writing clients for years about the risks involved in depending on the Microsoft spellchecker program, but I'd never heard it called the "Cupertino effect." Hilarious! I'll be sharing it with my readers in an upcoming issue of my ezine, "The KellyGram," with proper attribution, of course.

I'm a new VT subscriber, and absolutely love it. I'll be singing its praises as well to my readers.
Saturday January 15th 2011, 1:57 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
And don't forget spell checkers on NOKIA mobiles (cell) for texting too - lots more howlers there.
currently in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Sunday January 16th 2011, 4:04 AM
Comment by: Howard T. (Salisbury United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
This seems like a good time to introduce a new word into the English language. Can I suggest using 'autonym' to refer to words regarded as 'synonymous' by autocheckers or predictive text applications. To so appropriate an existing (and seldom used) English word feels consistent with the context of this proposed use.
Sunday January 23rd 2011, 10:03 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Loved the article, Ben. I've been victimized by the spell-checker in Word, but have been able to have what is redlined accepted or ignored. So I haven't been Cupertinoed.

Another automated source of amusement for me is the Amazon reading suggestions based on what I've ordered. One has to wonder!

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