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July 23, 2014 6:40 AM   Subscribe

The History of Autocorrect
...some of the calls were quite tricky, and one of the trickiest involved the issue of obscenity. On one hand, Word didn't want to seem priggish; on the other, it couldn't very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer. Microsoft was sensitive to these issues. The solution lay in expanding one of spell-check's most special lists, bearing the understated title: “Words which should neither be flagged nor suggested.”
posted by frimble (78 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
on the other, it couldn't very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer.

People say these things like it's a total given, but it's worth thinking about. Why shouldn't "motherfucker" be spell-corrected?

That aside, it's an interesting article about something that is both useful and infuriating. I like that it catches basic typos, but I hate the way it changes my writing in small ways, like automatically substituting "hard line" in place of "hardline" and so on. English has the flexibility to allow those differences and allow them to organically evolve, so it's frustrating to have a decision by some anonymous person at Microsoft or Apple carrying that much grammatical weight.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:49 AM on July 23 [18 favorites]


it couldn't very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer

I question this premise.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:49 AM on July 23 [9 favorites]


Apple auto correct is so ducking annoying that I don't use it anymore.
posted by ReeMonster at 6:52 AM on July 23 [20 favorites]


One of my common words is "spec", because I write a lot of project documents. I learned how to add words to the dictionary after the third time Word autocorrected it to "spank".
posted by Mogur at 6:56 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]


I have found that, for me, the most annoying autocorrect on my phone is changing "food" to "good" because, apparently, I never have anything nice to say, but I talk about food almost constantly.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 6:59 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Why shouldn't "motherfucker" be spell-corrected?

One reason is to allow you to misspell in order to sneak it through forums' auto spell-check censors.
posted by fairmettle at 7:00 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I have this irritation with Swype -- it isn't just that it doesn't know swear words, it is that honestly I don't care that much about ducks. (I think I have added most of them to the dictionary now.)
posted by jeather at 7:02 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


When writing technical specifications, the spelling auto-correct is fine but the grammar checker does my head in.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 7:03 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Why on earth would anyone leave the grammar check on?
posted by straight at 7:31 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]


Why shouldn't "motherfucker" be spell-corrected?

I think the issue is, what if the person wasn't TRYING to write "motherfucker"? What if some third grader is writing a report on, um... moth... something... something about moths?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:32 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


If they're writing a report on mothfuckers, they can add that to the dictionary list.
posted by kmz at 7:35 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]


"Yuor kiss is as sotf as a mothsfkutter"
posted by frimble at 7:36 AM on July 23 [18 favorites]


My efforts to work around iOS autocorrect had me eating "fuck fat fries".
posted by wotsac at 7:47 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


C'est la D.C., I have the exact opposite problem! I mean, I do talk about food a lot but still, how often should a person need to let someone else know "that's food."
posted by mr. manager at 7:51 AM on July 23 [6 favorites]


...on the other, it couldn't very well go around recommending the correct spelling of mothrefukcer.

But in regards to the proper spelling of the name Cthulhu, it has your back.
posted by y2karl at 7:52 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


A friend of mine worked at Apple in the autocorrect group. Their job was the reproduce the results found in Damn You Autocorrect and then figure out why it happened and how to prevent it in the future. The ratio of reproducible errors vs posted errors was quite small. So the fraud hypothesis from the article is substantiated, at least to a certain extent.

Swype, of course, has its own peculiarities, to the point that I try to remember to proofread everything I send by phone these days and switch to a thumb keyboard if I really need precision.
posted by Hactar at 7:53 AM on July 23 [12 favorites]


Thorpe went through the dictionary and took out all the words marked as “vulgar.”

I'm guessing this time period corresponds to when Word stopped suggesting my last name was "Kike," which just no.
posted by Panjandrum at 8:05 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


I have this irritation with Swype

My particular peeve with Swype is that when I mean "people", it keeps correcting it to either "puerile" or "petiole".

I'm convinced that my phone is secretly a misanthropic botanist.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:08 AM on July 23 [7 favorites]


My Swype issue is changing out "for" with "fir".

No Swype, there is almost no scenario in which I will be discussing types of trees. The instances of me using an extremely common preposition on the other hand...
posted by Twain Device at 8:11 AM on July 23 [10 favorites]


In regards to obscenities, there should just be an option whether or not to allow them. That seems like an obvious solution.
posted by I-baLL at 8:11 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


My Android had a hidden parental or no swearing option that I had to uncheck but unfortunately by that time I had said things were a cluster of ducks so much that it still comes up.

Also there was that great day where I added every swear I could think of to my dictionary. It made me feel like a naughty kid.
posted by kanata at 8:12 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Apple's autocorrect once changed my "oooooh, nice!" to "opponents, mice!", which was honestly the best thing that happened to me that day. So thanks for that, Apple.
posted by palomar at 8:13 AM on July 23 [18 favorites]


Also hah! I thought I was the only person who it corrected to petiole.
posted by kanata at 8:13 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Word stopped suggesting my last name was "Kike," which just no.

Yes, for all that I complain about autocorrect being prudish, I am really grateful that it stops me from mistyping "kike" for "like" about twice a week.
posted by howfar at 8:14 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I'm just hear to complaint about how autocorrect sometimes tries to correct numbers. Numbers!
posted by likeatoaster at 8:20 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Thanks to this thread about the repurposing of phallic baking pans, my iphone has learned and suggested "peniscake" on several occasions.
posted by dr_dank at 8:21 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


At an old job we had a Japanese client named Mr. Hotaka. I was writing him a letter and Word suggested that perhaps I intended to address "Mr. Hotcakes." Amused, I printed out a screen capture showing this "correction" and shared this around the office. To me it seemed clear that it was merely a screen capture and not a real letter, but I left it at one person's desk and she freaked out, thinking that she had somehow sent him a letter calling him Mr. Hotcakes. (I've shared this before here but it's been a few years, so sorry for the rerun.)
posted by exogenous at 8:24 AM on July 23 [12 favorites]


My Swype uses "thou" for "you".
posted by minsies at 8:27 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


One of my closest friends and I have texted and emailed each other in all caps for years, a ridiculous habit we picked up when he got a new phone and wasn't yet sure how to switch to lowercase. When I watched Deep Space Nine on his recommendation, I sent him many all-caps texts about the characters and plots...fast forward one year, where I sent frequent emails to a colleague named Julian, or JULIAN, as my phone liked to call him. "Hello xxxxxx and JULIAN," I mistakenly sent once.

Many, many words in my iPhone dictionary come out in all caps as a result.
posted by avocet at 8:28 AM on July 23


Argh! I have never once swyped "breast." Never! And I end all e-mails to my students "Best, ChuraChura." But now Swype changes best to breast every time. There are few things worse for my credibility than the e-mail I sent out to my entire class about widespread plagiarism on an assignment which closed "Breast, Churachura."
posted by ChuraChura at 8:31 AM on July 23 [13 favorites]


There are few things worse for my credibility than the e-mail I sent out to my entire class about widespread plagiarism on an assignment which closed "Breast, Churachura."

So Swype made the breast of a bad situation?
posted by zamboni at 8:40 AM on July 23 [9 favorites]


There are few things worse for my credibility than the e-mail I sent out to my entire class about widespread plagiarism on an assignment which closed "Breast, Churachura."

You were just subliminally encouraging them to make a clean breast of any wrongdoing.
posted by yoink at 8:42 AM on July 23


I'm a fan of "autocorrect Fridays", where you can't change from whatever the autocorrect/swype keyboard decides you were trying to say.
posted by inigo2 at 8:45 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I once had a manager who was ... a rather spastic typist and rather dependent on spell-check-on-send in Outlook. At some point, he sent an apologetic e-mail to a number of higher-ups in the company after a system outage, which he closed with "We apologize for the inconvenience." Except he mis-typed inconvenience, and Outlook helpfully corrected it to "We apologize for the incontinence."

It took a while before he lived that one down.
posted by jferg at 9:04 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Swype seems to think my every use of "have" is a reference to my friend Jane, with whom I do not text. It's highly annoying.
posted by suelac at 9:06 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


What dip flash said. Also, now that maverick on mac has default help spelling feature, and I just got a new computer not knowing this was set.. I discovered that I sounds like I'm on Ambien when I'm typing quick emails, tweets and worse: Skype messages. See, my small typo is corrected with the wrong word 90% of the time, and in Skype there's yet ANOTHER layer of correcting which flat out changes words as I am typing. Every time I write "skypa" (Swedish for "to Skype"), it'll correct it to "skyla" (to hide). It drives me up the wall. And since I type in more than three languages, there's no operating system that can keep up.
posted by dabitch at 9:07 AM on July 23


dabitch: On iPhone (and I believe on Mavericks as well), you can add a "language" to your keyboard, and autocorrect will then use that language to, um, autocorrect. I wouldn't be able to text my Dutch relatives otherwise without going insane.
posted by monospace at 9:15 AM on July 23


Ah. I just turned autocorrect off instead, because I don't think they have a language for g33k ( I tend to text in a lot of slang to my mates).
posted by dabitch at 9:17 AM on July 23


I had an old IBM PS/1 hanging around for many years that I kept almost solely for reasons of nostalgia. Like an ugly sweater you just couldn't bear to part with, the squat, glacially slow to load computer had been there for me during my formative years and though now useless, I didn't want to put it out to pasture. Two components that I especially loved were the After Dark screen saver package and the ancient spellchecker. It was telling that when I typed up "Internet" its wizened spellcheck got confused and suggested I might mean "Interest" instead of that freaky nonsense word I mistyped.
posted by but no cigar at 9:23 AM on July 23 [8 favorites]


In regard to "in regards to," I wish the default autocorrect dictionaries these days included phrases as well as words.
posted by RogerB at 9:58 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Fascinating:

The emerging consensus on usage will be a matter of statistical arbitration, between the way “most” people spell something and the way “some” people do. If it proceeds as it has, it's likely to be a winner-take-all affair, as alternatives drop out.

Functionally, we're moving from spelling being based on authoritative dictionaries, to a consensus, well-this-is-how-everyone-does-it, approach. Take that proscriptivists!
posted by bonehead at 10:04 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


ReeMonster: Apple auto correct is so ducking annoying that I don't use it anymore.

Show of hands: who else spent time trying to figure out what cuss word was autocorrected to "Apple"?
posted by IAmBroom at 10:07 AM on July 23 [4 favorites]


autocorrect constantly changes "amd" to "AMD" instead of "and." I don't even know what "AMD" stands for (graphics processors, says a quick google). It drives me NUTS. (Every time the phone updates "AMD" comes back into the dictionary and then I have to re-learn how to remove it, so annoying.)

It also has one where it changes "pint" to "point" every time. Pint is not that weird a word! But for some reason when I miss "didn't" it always changes it to "dint" ... sure, autocorrect, I was totally aiming for "dint" by dint of my gigantic vocabulary. That seems likely.

Also I hit "x" instead of "c" like all the time, but it still can't figure out that I mean "Chris" and not "xhris" and "car" or "can" instead of "xar" or "xan." I suppose a smarter person would put those words in the auto-replace list.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:11 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


My biggest problem with autocorrect is that it can make things harder to understand than they would have been with the original typo. Most of the time a typo is just one or two characters off, or maybe transposed. And a misspelling is usually not that hard to understand. But at least on the iPhone, it will think you must have meant to hit some nearby keys, and sometimes autocorrect into a word that has absolutely no resemblance to the word you intended to type. The message can end up being totally incomprehensible. In those cases, the cure is worse than the disease.
posted by primethyme at 10:12 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


In 1991, I was writing a letter to a relative named "Jennifer" in whatever DOS-based version of WordPerfect would have been on my IBM PS/1. The spellchecker suggested "guanophore" instead of "Jennifer."

At the time, confusing "-phore" with "-phage," I thought this meant "shit-eater" and assumed a dumped or rejected programmer was having a joke, but I guess it means something more like "shit-carrier" and is also a synonym for iridocyte, so I don't know what's up with that. Google finds at least one other person mentioning this who isn't me, so I'm pretty sure I'm not making this up.
posted by straight at 10:17 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


So how many people check spelling by typing a word into a search box, rather than pulling the dictionary off the shelf?

What do third-graders do?
posted by bonehead at 10:17 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


So how many people check spelling by typing a word into a search box, rather than pulling the dictionary off the shelf?


Trick there is to click through to see if there's a Did you mean...
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:26 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


But in regards to the proper spelling of the name Cthulhu, it has your back.

They seem to regularly update it with regard to current affairs and popular culture; either that or have a feed it gets newly salient proper nouns from. It seems to have names like Berlusconi, Netanyahu and Kardashian in its database, so presumably when someone with an unusual name achieves a certain level of fame, someone at Apple decrees them to be Autocorrect-notable.

I wonder if things ever drop out; is there a process to determine that, say, a planet in an old sci-fi novel, a deceased head of state or a no-longer-fashionable foreign dish, no longer merits a place in the dictionary.
posted by acb at 10:31 AM on July 23 [1 favorite]


I wonder if things ever drop out;

HyperCard.

It appears not.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 10:36 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Why on earth would anyone leave the grammar check on?

I advise my students, who are English language learners, to use the grammar check, but to remember that they are smarter than the computer and to think about the suggestions, rather than just take them. My kids make a lot of sentence-fragment or subject/verb agreement errors and it's nice to catch that on a first draft and on their own terms, rather than it coming from a teacher or classmate.

If I had set up the school computers, they would default to spellcheck on, autocorrect off.
posted by MsDaniB at 10:39 AM on July 23


Autocorrect should be exactly as socially acceptable as velcro shoes, or wearing pajamas in public.
posted by oulipian at 10:41 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


They seem to regularly update it with regard to current affairs and popular culture

I suspect this as well, and have also been mildly impressed with Apple autocorrect's somewhat unexpected cultural literacy, if that's the right term for it. The other week I was trying to text the word iftar and was about to mangle it into something like ugtar, and autocorrect actually did correct it to iftar. It surprised me because sprinkling other non-English words through my texts has been a recipe for autocorrect disaster, and iftar is not a word that's in any other standard spellcheck dictionaries that I've used, though Ramadan is. And I'm pretty sure I'd never typed it into my phone before either. So good job autocorrect! Thanks for having my back when making Ramadan plans!
posted by yasaman at 10:55 AM on July 23


> I question this premise.

It could correct the spelling of "mothrefukcer" or anything else that it judged to be reasonably close to "motherfucker" so as to remove all doubt that the user meant to type something else. But if there's any doubt, they don't want to suggest a vulgar word, because there is a non-zero number of people who would see that and go *gasp* what if my CHILD had been using the computer and we'd never hear the end of it on Fox News.

Google has a similar thing with its search suggestions and its instant search. There are certain things that exist on the internet and that Google will display results for, but which it does not ever want to suggest to someone who is halfway through typing an innocuous phrase. Porn is the main thing. If a new internet user comes by and somehow does not know that the internet has porn, Google wants very much to make sure that a Google search suggestion is not the thing that penetrates that veil of naïvete. I don't think Google is prudish; I think they recognize (correctly) that some people would go use Bing if that happened to them.

(This is why, for example, when you start typing the name of a famous actress, the second suggestion will almost always be "$firstname $lastname feet." It's not because foot fetishists are myriad (though they are), but because "$firstname $lastname ass" is removed from the list, because "ass" is on the blacklist but "feet" is not.)

Likewise, there are certain things that it will not automatically show results for via Google Instant — if you type one of these things, Google says "press enter to search for this term" or something like that. The list for search suggestions is similar (but not identical) to the list for instant search and I forget why.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:09 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Show of hands: who else spent time trying to figure out what cuss word was autocorrected to "Apple"?

No time at all. Of course the word would be "asshat."
posted by datawrangler at 11:13 AM on July 23


This is why, for example, when you start typing the name of a famous actress, the second suggestion will almost always be "$firstname $lastname feet."

Well, damn.

tatiana maslany
tatiana maslany feet
tatiana maslany tumblr
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:16 AM on July 23


Has anyone ever tried to type the name of the insurance company CNA into a Microsoft Office document (Excel or Word)? It's literally impossible.
posted by leopard at 11:17 AM on July 23


This is why, for example, when you start typing the name of a famous actress, the second suggestion will almost always be "$firstname $lastname feet."

Omg, I am so relieved that this happens to someone else! My friends all claim they don't get this autocomplete. And I actually think feet are kind of gross, famous or no -- is there a word for a mild opposite of a foot fetish?
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 11:19 AM on July 23


Amputee fetish?

(Oh, the mild opposite. ... Single amputee fetish?)
posted by aws17576 at 11:23 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


So how many people check spelling by typing a word into a search box, rather than pulling the dictionary off the shelf?

I did a thing with both my browsers that if I type dict+$word it will go directly to the dictionary.com page for that word, and thes+$word goes to thesaurus.com, and wiki+$thing goes to the wiki page for that thing, and in general it has made internetting better for me.
posted by elizardbits at 11:24 AM on July 23 [3 favorites]


I also don't remember how I did this thing so if anyone can explain how to do it again (chrome and firefox) that would be rad.
posted by elizardbits at 11:27 AM on July 23


For definitions, at least, googling "define:word" gets definitions.

"60 miles in kilometers" does conversions.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:30 AM on July 23


> I also don't remember how I did this thing so if anyone can explain how to do it again (chrome and firefox) that would be rad.

Both Firefox and Chrome have "keyword search" where you can give a bookmark a keyword and put a wildcard in its URL and then it'll treat (e.g.) "wp fan death" into http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Search/fan%20death. There are extensions that do this for other browsers.
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:34 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


(That's not an explanation of how to do it again but it'll get you close enough to Google.)
posted by savetheclocktower at 11:34 AM on July 23


hah --> hag on my old blackberry. Lots of followup texts to wifey after she communicated something humorous.
posted by resurrexit at 11:47 AM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Me sending a quick one-word update to work on the status of my daughter's ankle injury that took me out of the office:

Crutches.

Autocorrect: crotches.

Glad I caught that one.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:11 PM on July 23


It is clear to me that none of you are annoyed enough by autocorrect to turn it off, because if you *had* you would have realized within hours, as I did, that your mistakes without it are both more numerous and less amusing.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 12:33 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


Has anyone ever tried to type the name of the insurance company CNA into a Microsoft Office document (Excel or Word)? It's literally impossible.

File>Options>Proofing>AutoCorrect Options

[ ] Replace text as you type
(click to remove checkmark)

CNA
posted by straight at 12:39 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


I am still impressed by the day that the iPhone speech to text spelled Siddhartha correctly for me.

Siri still doesn't understand the way I say dodge, though.
posted by winna at 12:51 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


My phone's most baffling auto correct issues (besides that it thinks porcupine is not a word) is that it doesn't always recognize certain tenses. It accepts vomit, vomiting, and vomits, but not vomited. Similarly, one can astonish or be astonished, but astonishes doesn't fly.
posted by skycrashesdown at 12:53 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


My iPhone's autocorrect of the you're/your drama has gotten so good lately that I've grown complacent.

I sent my mother a text recently that said "Hope you're weekend is as good as mine"

She responded, "Yours must be very good for you to use the wrong you're."

She was wasted teaching math. Should've been an English teacher.
posted by teleri025 at 1:42 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


She was wasted teaching math.

A mortician will catch that sort of thing though.
posted by localroger at 4:41 PM on July 23


Since my phone learns from words I type over and over, it now recognizes "robopocalypse". I'm not sure if I should be worried about that or not.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:07 PM on July 23


My Apple iPhone Autocorrect peeve is that it corrects zine to Zune. A defunct product from a competitor. It's especially annoying to me as a former zine publisher who still occasionally discusses them. A lot of other people on Twitter have similar complaints.
posted by larrybob at 10:12 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


It could correct the spelling of "mothrefukcer" or anything else that it judged to be reasonably close to "motherfucker" so as to remove all doubt that the user meant to type something else

You'd think so. But then it'd have to have a built-in devil's advocate, ruling out any non-obscene possible explanations by deeply searching possible etymological explanations (“‘mothrezucker’ could have an alternate explanation as a surname of possible German/Yiddish origin with Latinate components, so no ‘motherfucker’ for you). Otherwise you might have the situation of someone with an interesting geneaological and linguistic history being autocorrected to an obscenity because a naïve algorithm doesn't believe their name to be real.
posted by acb at 6:11 AM on July 24


She responded, "Yours must be very good for you to use the wrong you're."

Sorry, mom, I meant to type MOTHERFUCKER.
posted by disconnect at 7:00 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


> I did a thing with both my browsers that if I type dict+$word it will go directly to the dictionary.com page for that word, and thes+$word goes to thesaurus.com, and wiki+$thing goes to the wiki page for that thing, and in general it has made internetting better for me.

Sorry for jumping into the thread two days later but I absolutely must mention this. If you just change your default search engine to DuckDuckGo you can type and a bazillion other shortcuts. It's like a command line for the web! It changed my (internet) life and now I cannot internet without it.
posted by narain at 8:38 PM on July 25 [2 favorites]


Why shouldn't "motherfucker" be spell-corrected?

It would make Samuel L. Jackson's twitter feed infinitely less interesting.
posted by radwolf76 at 1:51 AM on July 26 [1 favorite]


But in regards to the proper spelling of the name Cthulhu, it has your back.

-- insh’Allah, on the other hand, as I again recently rediscovered, no can do...

Now, that seems just wrong.
posted by y2karl at 9:40 AM on July 29


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