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Home > Publications > Quill > Electronic intelligence? No such thing.


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Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Electronic intelligence? No such thing.

By Paul Larocque

Relying on a computer’s spelling or grammar checker teaches us that nothing takes the place of careful proofing. Although such software can be enormously helpful, it is a machine and not a brain. It can’t and doesn’t understand linguistic nuance or variety or contingency. So we need to remember its shortcomings and take its suggestions with a barrel of salt.

The spellchecker competently flags misspelled words, without a doubt. But if your typo inadvertently spells a word that happens to be in the computer’s dictionary, that word will go unflagged. And spellcheckers can’t distinguish among homophones such as “there,” “their” and “they’re,” or “to,” “two” and “too.”

Further, no computer dictionary is large enough to include all the terminology readers readily understand, especially coined expressions or slang. I write, for example: “On the other hand, you want to say ewwww.” And the spellchecker says to make it “ewe.”

Later in this column, I write, “Grrr.” The spellchecker suggests, among other oddities, “garr” and “err.” Oh, sure, thanks. And in the second paragraph above is the word “unflagged” — which the spellchecker likes better as “unclogged,” “unfledged” or “unplugged.”

Elsewhere — and even more fun — I write: “Having the screaming meemies is like having the heebie-jeebies.”

The grammar checker thinks about that a little, then says to consider “as” or “as if” instead of “like.” And as if that weren’t bad enough, the spellchecker chimes in that I should change “meemies” to “memos,” “mammies,” “mummies,” “mommies” or “mimes.”

Apparently having exhausted itself on “meemies,” it doesn’t make a peep about “heebie” or “jeebie.”

Spellcheckers don’t recognize names, so we have to be especially careful. If we accidentally hit “change” instead of “ignore,” we could get odd results.

I type, for example: “We can expect an enchanting performance from an artist with the sensibilities of a Mazursky.” The spellchecker says that should read “an artist with the sensibilities of a Mazurka.”

I write about Hockaday School in Dallas, and the spellchecker suggests changing “Hockaday” to “hocked,” “rockaway” or “workaday.”

I write “Kahlil Gibran,” and the meddlesome software genius says to change Kahlil to “Cahill.” It also wants Gibran to be “Libran.”

If spellcheckers are risky, grammar checkers can be downright dangerous. My checker spits up so many grammatical hairballs you’d think all those rules had given it indigestion. And its understanding of those rules is imperfect at best. (The sentence I just wrote? It had a hard time with “rules is imperfect,” not grasping that it’s “understanding,” not “rules,” that dictates the verb.)

Some of the grammar checker’s suggestions are so wrong they’re laughable. I write: “How much of the following sentence do you understand?” and the grammar checker recommends: “How much of the following sentence DOES you understand.” I write: “You be the judge,” and it lectures me on the illiteracy of “you be” — as in, I suppose, “you be goin’ downtown.” I write: “Brevity and clarity are companions,” and it complains that “clarity” does not agree with “are.”

I write: “Stevenson feared that Secretary of State Dulles’ hard-line tactics were taking us to the brink of war,” and the grammar checker says that “were” does not agree with “secretary,” and that I should consider “was.” OK: “Stevenson feared that Secretary of State Dulles’ hard-line tactics WAS taking us to the brink of war.” How’s that?

I write: “We have so many war words that lexicographers have created whole books of them.” And the grammar checker, not realizing that “war” is an adjective in that sentence, says: “The word many does not agree with war. Consider wars.” (Amusingly, when I typed that sentence, the checker’s own, it remarked: “The word many does not agree with does. Consider do instead of does.”)

So we end up with 1) “We have so many WARS words that lexicographers have created whole books of them,” and 2) “The word many DO not agree with war.”

Some grammar checkers offer an archaic and arbitrary dictum against contractions. That’s nonsense. I write: “If you couldn’t or wouldn’t say it, don’t write it,” and the checker recommends this stiffer revision: “If you could not or would not say it, do not write it.”

Contractions are both graceful and conversational, and we should use them whenever they sound better than writing out the words.

The grammar checker’s shortcomings remind us that artificial intelligence is wonderful, but sometimes we need the real thing. Electronic intelligence can process information like a house afire, but it still can’t think.

Not yet.

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