The Infernal Engine
(First published in October 1995)
It came to me only recently that spell-checkers are the invention of the Devil.
Well, an invention if not of the cloven-hoofed gentleman, then certainly of someone or thing whose intent is the Destruction of All We Hold Dear.
It was General Jack D. Ripper, I think, who informed us that fluoridation of drinking water was all a dirty commie plot to Pollute Our Precious Bodily Fluids. These days, with the end of the Cold War, I would hesitate to point the finger in the same direction, but I ask you, have you ever heard of a Russian spell-checker? You bet your sweet babushka you haven’t.
I came to this revelation only recently, I must admit. But it all came clear to me when I was reading an article in “The Age” newspaper, on the concerns that parents have about the apparent decline in their children’s reading and writing skills. The article reported (unidentified) teachers as claiming that it was no longer necessary to teach children how to spell. “After all,” they went on, “there’s always the spell-checker”.
That was bad enough, but then I went on to read that the “whole-learning” approach depended on children learning to read, not by spelling out the sounds, but by learning to recognise the whole word in context, using “picture queues” and other non-verbal evidence.
Picture queues? Putting aside images of portraits lined up to get into a gallery, I puzzled over this for a long time, until I realised that what was meant were “picture cues”, that is, hints from illustrations. The article, I realised with a sense of impending dread, had been spell-checked!
“Queues” is a perfectly good word, of course. It would have passed the spell-checker easily. But it was the wrong word, and entirely the wrong meaning in the context of the sentence. A queue is something long and boring, the epitome of inaction. A cue, on the other hand, as in a billiard cue, is something which prompts something else into action.
A perfect example, in other words, of why spelling is important, and why spell-checkers are the invention of the Devil, or of someone who admires him.
Later in the same edition of the newspaper, in an article discussing ethics, we see “principle” used incorrectly instead of “principal”, greatly confusing the sense.
No newspaper in Australia now employs a proof-reader. The profession of proof-reader is going the same way as that of gas-lighter. Archaic, unnecessary, old-fashioned. Yet its loss will leave us all in the dark.
The problem with spell-checkers, of course, is that they don’t check spelling. They merely have a long list of combinations of letters which are known to be valid English words; and the best they can do is to report that a certain combination is not in its list. This entirely negative check does pick up some mis-typings of course, otherwise no-one would use spell-checkers. But as any Scrabble player knows, there are some very weird combinations of letters which are perfectly valid English words. Worse still, people can add their own words to the list in the spell-checker, if they find the checker regularly picking them up and questioning them. Ah, blessed relief: no more annoying “Ignore, Change, Add?” messages from the spell-checker. But the result is, that over time, the list of accepted spelling combinations in the checker gets longer and longer, and fewer and fewer mis-spellings are actually identified.
Spell-checkers would still have their uses even so, but because of sheer laziness, or for short-sighted economic reasons in the case of the newspapers, no-one who has run a spell-checker over an article feels any impulse or duty to read it to pick up any other errors, let alone to check for sense and coherence. The result is that the quality of journalism (never very high) is plunging rapidly. One frequently these days comes across sentences or phrases in published material which simply do not make sense, or which are so badly mangled that one has to give up in disgust. So no example is set to young people of good writing, and so the standards of literacy continue to drop into the abyss.
A friend of mine recently tried to convince me that within five years keyboards will be a thing of the past: all computer input will be through voice-recognition.
“But what about words which sound the same, but have different spelling?”.
“Oh, artificial intelligence will sort all that out,” he said airily. “Besides, we have spell-checkers.”
The trouble with artificial intelligence, of course, is that mostly it is artificial stupidity: dumbness repeated over and over again a million times to achieve a result. Like trying out a million possible moves in a game of chess. Like checking every word against a vast list of possibilities.
But the worst thing of all about spell-checkers is that I reckon they are going to halt the process of spelling reform. Lord knows, the English language is full of odd and non-phonetical spellings: that’s probably why we need spell-checkers in the first place. Laugh, cough, bough, though. Night and fright. Photograph.
Without the invention of the spell-checker, there was at least some hope that over a period of time English spelling would become more rational: the Americans have at least made a start on it. But if my spell-checker, based on an Australian dictionary, rejects “center” in favour of “centre”, “color” in favour of “colour”, and refuses to play along if I attempt “nite” or “foto”, what hope is there for spelling reform? We are all going to be locked into late 20th Century spellings of the particular country we base our dictionaries on. The process of slow shiftings in spelling will just stop.
Similarly, old, obscure or esoteric words will drop from use because the spell-checker won’t let them through – try using a great word like “logodaedaly”, for example, and have the Microsoft Word nanny peremptorily interrupt you and tell you to correct that word it has underlined in red for you, you naughty person!
To close, I can’t do better than to quote from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, written long before spell-checkers, but presaging their invention:
A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods… Let the dictionary (for example) mark a good word as “obsolete” or “obsolescent” and few men thereafter venture to use it, whatever their need of it and however desirable its resoration to favor – whereby the process of impoverishment is accelerated and speech decays. On the contrary, the bold and discerning writer who, recognizing the truth that language must grow by innovation if it grow at all, makes new words and uses the old in an unfamiliar sense, has no following and is tartly reminded that “it isn’t in the dictionary”…
Ignore, Change, Add?