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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 10, 2008 10:58 PM. The previous post in this blog was Don't eat the Whole Foods burgers. The next post in this blog is Portland street renaming proposals: Chávez group is behind. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.



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Sunday, August 10, 2008

More computer corruption of language

One of the advances of the computer age is the spell-checker. Great for cleaning up typographical mistakes and helping us avoid flubbing the tough words, it's nonetheless a bit of a mixed blessing. Many young people simply don't bother to learn to spell well, because they think the box will do it for them.

More amusing is when spell-checker and other word replacement programs inadvertently change a word without an author's noticing. When Olympic star Tyson Gay started being referred to as Tyson Homosexual, you could almost feel the tentacles of the computer.

Some of the related devices that come with spell-checkers can wreak havoc. For example, some word processors come out of the box with default settings that change (c) to ©; for a lawyer (like me) writing about statutes that have lots of subsection (c)'s in them, that can be maddening. Ditto for the features that automatically turn the letters in ordinals, like "8th," into superscript letters, as in "8th." If you don't want to do that, it's a pain (at least at first) to figure out how to turn it off.

When composing for the internet, things can get even screwier. Every web page comes with a set of character codes -- for instance, this site uses one called UTF8 -- and if the word processing program thinks you're operating in another one, the resulting web page can have a bunch of gobbledygook in it where punctuation marks ought to be.

One gadget that causes problems in some contexts is usually dubbed "smart quotes" or some such. This feature of a word processor decides which way the quotation marks you're typing ought to "point." Instead of leaving neutral marks like these -- " " -- the program converts them into opening and closing quotation marks, like these -- “ ‟. Typically it will do this with single quotation marks as well as double.

It's the single quotation marks that create the most grief. When a mark is being used to denote that something has been omitted -- as in contractions like isn't and don't -- if it's going to point in either direction, it should curve around with the tips facing the left, or tilt with the top leaning right, like this -- ´. That's true even if the mark is at the start of the word, as when we abbreviate for a year -- for instance, '08 as short for 2008. The problem arises when the smart quotes program thinks that any mark at the start of a word must be opening a quotation, and so it automatically points it so that it curves around with the tips facing right, or with the top leaning left, like this -- `. Many an editor of an alumni magazine at an institution of learning has been burned by this. He or she types "John Doe '85"; smart quotes changes the mark in front of the numerals in the wrong direction; and the editor hears choruses of derision from his or her English Department and other members of the "gotcha" brigade. You can find alumni donor lists with page after page of marks -- legions of them -- all pointing the wrong way.

I noticed this glitch the other day in all of the graphics in the video on my spoof Presidential candidacy, and I figured oh well, it's all in fun. But when The New York Times succumbs -- on the front page on a Sunday, no less -- well, it's clear that the computer's going to win:

One of these days, `08 (with the apostrophe curving or leaning the wrong way) is going to be acceptable usage, because it's easier to let the machine do it that way. In the meantime, those of us who want to get it right have to figure out how to turn the smart quotes feature off, at least temporarily. I just worry that soon I'll hear a voice come out of the speakers saying, "I don't think I can do that, Dave."

Comments (12)

This reminds me of the time I published a neighborhood association board agenda that included a land use application for a matter related to one of the radio towers in the west hills. I know at one point I correctly typed "KGW tower"; it got spellchecked and corrected somewhere along the way and came out as "KGB tower".

I'm glad I'm not the only who gets annoyed with this alleged techno-evolution.

Now, see, if you had let a grammar checker do its work, it would have pointed out that "only" needs a noun or pronoun to modify.


Years ago, there was a sign in front of St. Peter's College, and the apostrophe in "Peter's" was loose enough that you could turn it the wrong way by hand. We did so gleefully whenever the opportunity arose. Somebody kept turning it back the right way, and we'd retaliate. This went on for years.

if you had let a grammar checker do its work

If only. Am I alone in finding irony in the use of the term "smart" to describe these computer "features"?


As a lawyer, you must surely be familiar with the consbreastution.

You've seen the AP report on this year's Presidential race between "Barack Abeam" and "John moccasin?"

It started when OCR software (Optical Character Recognition), could 'read' (read: decode) the typed characters on a page pulled out of a reporter's typewriter, (1971), and machine-control software could operate the typesetting machines (e.g., Linotype, Mergenthaller) which composed the galleys, that make the press plates, that ink the newsprint ... so the bundles of newspapers -- and 'news' -- being tossed out of the back of the pre-dawn 'newsdelivery' trucks to the waiting paperboys and news-kiosk keepers, or stuffed in coin newsboxes, were last touched by human labor and last proofread by human Graphic-Arts sensibilities at the reporter's typewriter!

(BUT ... only IBM Selectric 'typeball' typewriters, with the manufacturing quality control to typewrite uniform unbroken characters, for consistent OCR 'recognition.' There went the Royals and Underwoods and Remingtons and Smith-Coronas romances. Also, there went the detective possibility of 'solving the crime' by tracing the ransom note to a single typewriter (owner) swinging a crooked or broken odd character.)

Thus ended the typographer artisans and grammarian stylers who kept the craft ... of directed quotes, single quotes, apostrophes, and dotted i's and crossed t's and all which makes for idetic-consistent legibility and veracity.

In related developments, the computer programming which controls the presses, (and, more and more, roboticizes The Press), as an 'after thought' hyphenates words at the line breaks, for typesetting flush-right justification. Nonsense hyphenation placement is an associated loss of quality Graphic Arts style ... in which hilarity ensues.

(There are only 4 computer 'rules' for all hyphenation, as I recall. 1- in a vowel-consonant-vowel sequence, hyphenate before the consonant. 2- in a double consonant sequence, hyphenate between the two, (ergo: 'hyp-hen'). 3- in a triple consonant sequence, ('doubtful'), hyphenate before the third consonant. 4- look it up in a stored dictionary of hyphenation exception words. There are no 4-consonant sequences, 'rightfully.' Perhaps it is useful to know that computers do NOT 'read' words, but only read sequences of characters ... and the space (' ') is a character ... of two sizes -- 'nut' (6 pica points) or 'mut' (12 points) width ... or may be kerned by single points.)

Bojack's been here. b4n

When I worked for a newspaper, they called those quotation marks "sixes and nines" to denote which way their tails pointed. Clever, I thought. Looks like that NYT headline has a six when it should have a nine.


Open double quote, close double quote, open single quote, close single quote.

Macs, you gotta love ’em; the friends of digital typographers for more than twenty years.

The computer conversation I've been waiting to hear for the last seven years:

"HAL, open the pod bay doors."


"Yes, HAL. Open the pod bay doors."

"Dave's not here."

"HAL, I'm Dave. I have to get Frank back inside. Will you open the pod bay doors?"


*knock knock*

"Who is it?"

"It's me, HAL. Dave. D-A-V-E! Now will you open the goddamn pod bay doors?"


"Riiiiiiight, maaaan. Now will you open up the God Damn Door?"

"Dave's not here."


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