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."