Auto incorrect

You might think Grammarly or the autocorrect function on your Microsoft Word are your best friends. They’re not.

While some things benefit the individual in the short term, they might hurt the group in the long run. Adam Smith isn’t always right.

The spell checker has been around since the mid 1980s, constantly growing in jurisdiction and sophistication. The first spell checkers were, well, spell checkers, but as software developed, they acquired grammar, punctuation and syntactical skills. At the moment, the Grammarly app seems to be the triumph of that ambitious vision of error-free drafting. It sounds great and in many ways it is. But in some ways, it isn’t.

There’s at least two problems with automatic correction. One has to do with standardisation, the other with literacy. Both issues regard the culture as well as the individuals within it.

One of the oft-repeated achievements of the printing press has been the mechanisation of textual reproduction. Since human copyists ceased to be part of the replication of written culture after the 16th century (by and large), there was no textual variation between the copies made of a given text. Unlike manuscripts, prints are identical with each other. It is perfectly understandable that the first sustained efforts at reproductive fidelity by scholars and academies postdate rather than predate Gutenberg’s machine. In time, this led to an extreme degree of textual accuracy, standards, and a general desire to draw clear distinctions between what’s grammatically correct and what is not. The ancient and medieval author, scribe and reader didn’t care that much about it. No two manuscripts of the same text were ever the same. But before we rush to celebrate this great cultural achievement, let us remember that most, if not all, European languages were born and wildly evolved during the pre-print age. To take English as an example, the amount of linguistic evolution which English(es) experienced between Beowulf and Shakespeare is wildly higher than that achieved in the period between Shakespeare and T.S. Elliot. And freedom often does to language what it does to society, making it thrive when the landscape is free and inhibiting it when it is not.

The auto-correct tool introduces a further level of standardisation to the way we write. By accepting the conventions of those who built the rules into the software, we may be the position to slow down the natural evolution of language. Not everyone will agree with this, but I am persuaded that fewer rules – or at least rules which are not to be applied like those of arithmetic and geometry – help a language develop more than the proliferation of clearcut directives. Language often flourishes in messy soil.

The other issue is of course externalisation. More than half of what people in pre-electronic ages used to transport in their own cognition is now on a server somewhere. I grew up surrounded by shelves of cassettes and music CDs. Now these shelves are called Spotify. The same with knowledge and scholarship – we memorise far fewer things now, trusting more in our ability to retrieve rather than store. At school, I was taught how to memorise. Now, kids are taught how to Google. Both skills are important. But when it comes to literacy, outsourcing our ability to stay within the lines may be pernicious – not so much to us as individuals, but more to our culture, where signs of illiteracy are everywhere visible. The auto-correct has the answer, but you don’t. Grammarly grows your draft from 60% correctness to 100% not just on spelling, but also on syntax, semantics and style. But we’re not the wiser, or the more literate. Instead, we’re encouraged to grow complacent, obedient to the ‘overall score’, the bedrock of our literacy turned to quicksand.

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