Friday - - Society -

It’s all just a click away… In our tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced (but pro­gres­sively lazy) world, gad­gets do all the think­ing for us. Google Maps has made the need to mem­o­rise di­rec­tions re­dun­dant, a dic­tionary or th­e­saurus is but a mouse click away, and your word doc­u­ment not only for­mats your writ­ing for you and al­lows a choice of fonts, it even checks your work for spelling and gram­mar er­rors.

And now this spellchecker has ex­tended its pres­ence to emails, web pages and online dic­tionar­ies. What do you think goes into the con­struc­tion of such an app?

The log­i­cal an­swer seems to be: feed words into the com­puter so that it may com­pare user er­rors against those, and alert by un­der­scor­ing them with a wavy red line. In which case, the more words stored for ref­er­ence, the bet­ter, right? Ac­tu­ally, no. Boffins at the spellcheck and pre­dic­tive text de­part­ments of Google and Mi­crosoft think 90,000 words to be an op­ti­mal num­ber; any more than that, and a wrongly spelled word could re­main un­cor­rected be­cause it was iden­ti­cal to a word in the larger pool.

For ex­am­ple, the word ‘taka’ is more fre­quently a mis­spelling of take than a ref­er­ence to the Bangladeshi cur­rency. Hence, it’s more use­ful if a few peo­ple who write about that cur­rency were slightly in­con­ve­nienced, than if the spelling er­rors of the many more peo­ple who sim­ply wrote ‘take’ wrongly were over­looked.

What about gram­mar, then? That’s a con­stant bat­tle for the IT spe­cial­ists, thanks to the many va­garies of the English lan­guage com­pared to the very spe­cific syn­tax and gram­mar of the spe­cial­ists’ own com­puter pro­gram­ming lan­guages. The ear­li­est pro­grams checked for punc­tu­a­tion and style in­con­sis­ten­cies rather than for any ac­tual gram­mat­i­cal er­rors. Later ones iden­ti­fied trite and clichéd phrases that needed weed­ing out to smarten the copy. This had an added ad­van­tage: iden­ti­fy­ing phrases pil­fered from other online sources, thereby mak­ing it eas­ier to nab pla­gia­rists.

The only crit­i­cism (prob­a­bly a valid one) lev­elled at th­ese pro­grams is that they en­cour­age lazi­ness be­cause you no longer need to know cor­rect spelling and gram­mar in­side your own head.

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