NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Computer Checkers

By Paula LaRocque, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

If you use a computer, you probably also use its spelling and grammar checkers. That software is helpful, but it does remind us that the computer is a machine and not a brain - it can't and doesn't understand linguistic nuance or variety. We need to remember its shortcomings and take its suggestions with a little salt.

The spellchecker dependably flags misspelled words. But if your typo happens to spell a word in the computer's dictionary, that word will go unflagged. And spellcheckers can't distinguish among words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently. For example: the spellings of the word pronounced THERE: "t-h-e-r-e, t-h-e-i-r, and t-h-e-y'r-e. Or of TO: t-o, t-w-o and t-o-o.

Also, no computer dictionary is large enough to include everything readers understand - especially expressions or slang. I write, for example: "Makes you want to say ewwww" - spelling it e-w-w-w. And the spellchecker says to spell it either e-w-e, which is a female sheep, or wow!, which is...well, you know.

Earlier in this commentary, I used the word "unflagged." When I typed that word, however, the spellchecker didn't recognize it. It suggested instead "unclogged," "unfledged," or "unplugged" - each of which would have been odd to say the least.

I once wrote: "Having the screaming meemies is like having the heebie-jeebies."

The grammar checker thought about that for a second, then said I should change "meemies" to "memos," "mammies," "mummies," "mommies," or "mimes." And it thought "heebie" should be "hereby," and "jeebie" should be" jibe" or "Jezebel," or "Jeannie."

So we'd end up with something like: Having the screaming mummies is like having the hereby Jezebels. How's that?

Spellcheckers don't know what to do with names. I type: "He's an artist with the sensibilities of a Mazursky." The spellchecker says that should read "an artist with the sensibilities of a Mazurka." I write "Hockaday School," and the spellchecker suggests changing "Hockaday" to "hocked," "rockaway," or "workaday." I write "Kahlil Gibran," and the software says to change Kahlil to "Cahill." And Gibran should be "Libran."

If spellcheckers are risky, grammar checkers are downright dangerous. And some of its suggestions are so wrong they're laughable. I type: "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 chokes on the hairball of "you be" - as if I'd written something like: "You be goin' downtown."

These computer aids remind us that artificial intelligence is wonderful, but sometimes we need the real thing. The human brain, with its flexibility and capacity to imagine, is still superior to the electronic model. The computer is never tired or preoccupied or careless, so it is great at remembering and observing rules. But it doesn't have the imagination of even a very young human brain which not only can forget the rules, but also can find in them loopholes and options. Electronic intelligence can process information like a house afire, but it still can't think.

At least not yet.

Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, Championship Writing, and On Words.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.