Thursday, February 12, 2009

Doe Snot, Spell Check and "Efficient" Word Processing

Don't you just love computer programs that profess to know what you want to do better than you do? Neither do I. Okay, I'll say it. I have a love-hate relationship with Microsoft Word.

When I'm writing I don't want my word processing application to do things for me. Don't assume that because I typed a hyphen at the beginning of a line that I want to start a bulleted list, or that I want change the style of an entire block of text just because I increase the font size and make a word bold. And just how does the "ribbon" make it easier for me to see all of the options when I can no longer hover over a menu bar and see the drop-down lists? Just because you can make it look cool doesn't mean you should.

Image source: GraphJam

On the other side of this equation are the things that it should do but doesn't. I would expect a program smart enough to analyze a sentence and warn you that it is written in passive voice, could figure out that you meant to say 'does not' instead of 'doe snot'. Both pass spell check but couldn't you warn me (when I ask to be warned) that something seems out of place. Evidently context is not king but someone who visits at inconvenient times. Honestly, when was the last time you read a computer programming book that mentioned the mucus discharge of friendly forest creatures.

When reviewing the galley proofs for my last computer book, I noticed a 'doe snot' in the text. Guessing it was not a solitary incident, I searched all of the chapters and found at least a dozen occurrences. Something must have been sneezing over my shoulder.

The root cause of this error is the most common typing mistake, a transposition.

I'm going to date myself now. The first word processor I ever used was not a program but a dedicated word processing computer called a DECmate with dual 8" floppy disks. And yes, they really were flexible and "floppy". It was a joy to use because it did one thing and did it very well.

The case in point is that someone did their homework, and had a way to deal with transposition typos. There was a dedicated key labeled "Swap". Place the cursor between the transposed characters, hit the swap button, and it ... well it swapped them. No more typo. One keystroke, not the three (delete, advance the cursor, retype the character just deleted) needed in all modern word processing programs.

We are not repeating history, we are ignoring its positive lessons. Hello? Microsoft? Are you listening? I know you didn't ask me, but could you please give us a way to easily turn off the stuff we don't want, and add something we can all use every day like "Swap"?

1 comment:

  1. Form the way you right, i can sea your a fan of MS Word.

    And, unfortunately, others follow where Word leads. Open Office suffers from many of these issues.

    Emacs (1977 or so) has a transpose letters command. Control T is one of the shortest commands, so the authors both put it in early, and expected you to use it often. And, there's a "transpose words" command too.

    Every now and then, Word (or the equivalent) will actually correct some error i made. But there are documents that are nearly impossible to enter. Even if you go back and correct it, when you leave the word, it "fixes" it again. Often it's computer text. And i'll used notepad (or the equivalent) then copy and paste it. Then, i don't get the formatting i want, and need to bludgeon the word processor some more.

    In 1987, my Mac had a drawing program that had a built in spelling checker. At the time, people wondered if that was a good thing. Did you need it? Doesn't it need it's own dictionary and code? That takes quite a bit of space. And Apple did attempt an architecture where you could have a spelling checker app and a generic API. It didn't take off as expected. We have DLL's now, with their own problems. But a spell checker in the drawing app was awesome.

    Part of the problem is that you think of an easy feature to add, like spell checking, and you do it. Then processors are faster, and you think, "it'd be easy to add spell checking on the fly", and you do it. And some grammar paper comes out, and you think you can check grammar - and it's awful. But it's a feature, so you feel obligated to keep it. Context is hard, but probably doable these days.

    Firefox spell checks for me on the fly, even in this comment box. But it just underlines words it doesn't know. And, it doesn't know 'Firefox'. But i can add it to my dictionary. I can right click a word and it will offer suggestions. It's not difficult to implement. It's the right way to do it.


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