The Control Panel search results understand common misspellings, too


Here's a little trick. Open your Start menu and type scrensaver into the search box. That's right, spell it with only one e.

Hey, it still found the Control Panel options for managing your screen saver.

If you enable Improve my search results by using online Help in Windows Help and Support, this sends your search query to a back-end server to see if there's updated online help content related to your search. And the people who develop the online help content look over those queries to see if, for example, there is a category of issues people are searching for help with and not finding anything.

It also means that they get to see a lot of misspellings. And that information is useful, because it means that the Control Panel search provider can be given a table of the most popular misspellings and how to fix them. which in turn benefits people who unchecked the Improve my search results by using online Help (say because they don't have Internet access or because they are afraid of the black helicopters).

So now, when you search for scrensaver, you are directed to information on screen savers, thanks to the millions of other people who spelled it wrong before you.

Obligatory link: The so-called God mode.

Comments (41)
  1. John says:

    This begs the question: if enough people use "begs the question" incorrectly, does it then become correct?

  2. Simon Farnsworth says:

    John:

    The great thing about English is that there is no authority for what is and is not correct – the language evolves, and our dictionaries are descriptive of how people use it, rather than prescriptive (like French dictionaries, which tell you what is and is not correct).

    No matter what the grammar and spelling trolls would like you to think, the key in English is simply that your point is clear; there is no such thing as "correct" and "incorrect", merely "commonly understood" and "commonly misunderstood".

  3. Adam Rosenfield says:

    It's a good thing that it can be turned off, because power users often need "do what I say, not what you think I mean", but having it on by default is definitely a very reasonable choice for non-power users (of whom the majority of Windows users is comprised).

  4. Michael Quinlan says:

    'scrensaver' has two e's, not one. 'screensaver' has three e's.

  5. Joshua Ganes says:

    It sounds like this is too specific a solution for a more general problem. If I misspell an uncommon word or in an uncommon way, this trick will do nothing for me. Why not find a list of nearby candidate words (similar to how most spell checkers work) and search on those too? With this approach, with perhaps some tweaks to weigh the results, there would be no need to manually maintain a list of common misspellings.

    [The "nearby candidate words" algorithm would have to be rewritten for each language, so that wouldn't be very localizable. Also, the alternatives list includes synonyms, so you can find the screen savers control panel by typing "wallpaper". -Raymond]
  6. DWalker59 says:

    @John:  Props for knowing that "begs the question" does not mean what many people think it means.  (Princess Bride reference.)

  7. John says:

    @Simon:  I agree with that in principle, but then you have to deal with words having different meanings over time.  So somebody writes something in one time, another person interprets it in another time – hilarity ensues.  The Constitution being the most obvious example of this.  For a document as important as that, it is a bit unnerving that the meaning of its words has changed since it was written.

  8. Rick C says:

    @Michael Quinlan, don't be needlessly pedantic.

  9. Maurits says:

    In addition to a "common misspellings" list I bet there's a "strangest" list.

  10. Mason Wheeler says:

    @John: The constitution?  I'd have said the Bible.   (King James or any other comparably old translation.)

  11. John says:

    @Mason:  I suppose the Bible is the more obvious example; I was going for more relevant, but even today the Bible still wields a fair amount of power.  Now that I think about it, the Bible is even more interesting in that it was not only written long ago but also translated from another language (and those words were written even further in the past).

  12. Simon Smith says:

    @Simon Farnsworth: great saying from James Nicholl

    "The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

    …and if we've got one of those already, lucky us!

  13. Tergiver says:

    @Simon: There actually is an authority on English language usage: en.wikipedia.org/…/The_American_Heritage_Dictionary_of_the_English_Language

  14. -dannardoza says:

    Languages need to evolve and not be left in the dark ages, otherwise asking for more RAM could leave you with a bunch of guys in your living room with very large timber and a broken door.  

    I'm just saying

  15. Aaron.E says:

    @Tergiver

    I think Simon Farnsworth was referring to the fact that there is no recognized government agency regulating the usage rules of the English language, whereas French has, for instance, the Académie française to officially decide upon what is correct usage.  There are many published sources of reference on English usage, but they vary over time and space without external regulation.

  16. RichardDeeming says:

    @Tergiver: Anything with "American" in the title cannot possibly be an authority for the English language, given how you Yanks like to mess with it! :0)

  17. Tergiver says:

    @Richard: I thought that the "English Language Usage Panel" was associated with the Oxford English Dictionary, but when I went looking for a web link, all I could find was that one for the American Heritage Dictionary. It had been my incorrect understanding that there was a panel in England which all English dictionaries refer to for language disputes. Personally I wish for standardization because effective communication is predicate on having a common meaning for words.

  18. dave says:

    There actually is an authority on English language usage

    Indeed. About as authoritative for English as the "world series" for baseball is global.

  19. Jon says:

    @JM: "definatly" works too, even though it is even closer to "defiantly".

  20. Tergiver says:

    Thankfully Word corrects 'definately' to 'definitely', because in spite of the fact that I know which is correct, I inevitably type the wrong one.

  21. voo says:

    Hum I may be missing something (not native speaker), but since "begging the question" is a clearly defined fallacy isn't this a bit different than just "words change their meaning over time"? Heck if we changed everything when the majority didn't quite grasp the concept this would turn out quite.. interesting.

  22. xpclient says:

    I would take improved help content over such useless mis-spelling understanding feature any day. Oh my! The Help system beginning with Vista is so bad I can't trash it enough. The content is so dumbed down, non-exhaustive, non-technical, useless and designed for grandmas. I have put all of XP's help content modified and updated for Vista into Vista's help center using the OPK. The help doesn't even have an index, or favorites, history and advanced search. With NT 6.x, Microsoft DESTROYED help in every way possible. No context sensitive What's this help either. No online or offline help for IE9 either. Help is just a useless window that opens and shows a Bing type search box that doesn't find anything useful. Can't decide if the shell team did a bad job on NT 6.x or the "assistance platform" team.

  23. JM says:

    @Tergiver: I was going to say "that depends on what you mean by 'effective'", but I guess that would be making the point for you…

    Fortunately English speakers *do* have a common meaning for words — I don't rightly see how it's possible to communicate if you don't. It's the notion that dictionaries can somehow capture the *exact* meaning of words and supply a rock-solid foundation for communication that's the chimera. Standardization has its uses, but "effective" communication is not one of the things it enables. Pedantry, yes, although it seems English has no lack of pedants despite those not having a single rock on which to build their church.

    To go waaaaay back round and slightly on topic again, because the prescriptivist vs. descriptivist flame war is old and tired — the technique of farming common misspellings works wonders for Google, too, to the point where it's better than most spell checkers. For example, if you search on "definately", Google goes ahead and assumes you meant to search for "definitely". Lost of offline spell checkers still insist on correcting it to "defiantly", because their metrics consider that word a closer match. Phonetics isn't their strong suit.

  24. kermi says:

    @xpclient

    going way offtopic, but i'll be damned if i don't agree with you! I especially miss the "what's this?" thing! Granted it didn't always work very well, but still it was there.

  25. Cheong says:

    It makes me wonder whether people writing malware will intentionally create files with these commonly mistyped words in order to trick people who use muscle memory a lot to execute them.

  26. mike says:

    PS more on "beg the question" — a Google NGram search suggests that "beg the question" has been appearing more and more since about 1940 and was  at a 200-year high as of the year 2000. (With many caveats on that statement.) Have a look:

    books.google.com/…/graph

  27. mike says:

    (Second attempt to post, sorry if this is a repeat …)

    Re: "beg the question." This has a precise meaning in the field of logic and rhetoric, but most people don't study those fields and don't know that, and in popular usage it's often used to mean "raise the question." This is not surprising; that's sort of what it sounds like it should mean. Trying to convince people that a technical and non-obvious meaning is the only "correct" meaning for an idiom is a losing proposition. There are lots of terms that have precise meanings in a particular field but are used either more loosely or quite differently in everyday speech — "parameter," "orthogonal," "paradigm," "permutation," "average," "quantum leap," "schizophrenic," "exponential," "inflection point," and for that matter, "grammar." You can't wall off terms like these and allow only "experts" to determine when they're being used correctly. ("Languages certainly do follow rules, but they don't follow orders." — Peter Sokolowski)

    Re: Vista (et al.) help. I don't know this for sure, but there are several reasons why Help might have changed with Vista. One is that the type of Help that's useful to an IT Pro or knowledgable user is often over the heads of ordinary people; it's possible that (e.g.) tech-support calling stats show suggested that more consumer-oriented Help was the direction they should go. As for less Help "in the box," as they say, that might be because Help that ships on the box is harder to update (in both English and other languages) than anything that's web-based. Search has become far and away the favored entry point for Help these days, so it's not unreasonable to offer that as a primary entry point on the box as well. The tradeoff here is between having (some, possibly outdated) Help on the computer versus having (more, potentially more up to date) Help on the web. Anyway, those are some possibilities.

  28. Neil says:

    Didn't Raymond already write an article on what happened to the context-sensitive help button?

  29. ThomasX says:

    Let's all come up with a name for this feature. I suggest "counter-education".

  30. Tijmen says:

    "[The "nearby candidate words" algorithm would have to be rewritten for each language, so that wouldn't be very localizable. Also, the alternatives list includes synonyms, so you can find the screen savers control panel by typing "wallpaper". -Raymond]"

    This solution has to be rewritten for each language too right, the dutch "Schermbeveiliging" would also be available when i would mistype it as "Schermbeveliging"?

    [It turns out that strings are very localizable when done right. Indeed, string translation is how most localization is done! On the other hand algorithms are typically not localizable. In English, "editing distance" may be good enough, but in Chinese, you may want "pronunciation distance" or "stroke distance". -Raymond]
  31. Simon Farnsworth says:

    @voo This is why all fields of study end up with jargon; we take common English words where the meaning is close enough to the technical term you need, and define it rigidly within that context. Thus, "begs the question" in general English is shifting meaning to "raises the question", while in formal logic and rhetoric, it will maintain its tight definition as the fallacy where the proposition to be proven is assumed proved in the premise.

    Note that I've also had to use formal logic jargon just to define the jargon meaning of "begs the question"; "premise" has multiple meanings in modern English, as does "proven" and "proposition".

    For computer science examples, look at "pointer", "reference", "address", and "word". Words with English meanings that hint at their technical meaning, but that have a precise definition within CS.

  32. -dan says:

    @Richard Deeming

    I thought the expression was 'I couldn't care less'

    Although it's no shock that people are lazy and drop the 'not'

  33. mike says:

    @dan, whatever people's faults might be, "lazy" is not a word that really works for talking about speech habits, dialects, idioms, etc. Otherwise, is the idea that they start uttering a sentence, get to "I could …", and just say, "Ah, screw it, I can't be bothered to add that "n't", it's too hard — ?

  34. So agree on the lack of context-sensitive help!  I've lost count of the number of dialog boxes where I just didn't know what to do on.  Instead of clicking a help button / press F1 / click question mark, I have to search online and try to track down documentation for the dialog.  It's brain damaged.

    The maddening part is when the dialog is one that's been around since the Win9x / NT4 days when I remember it actually had functional context-sensitive help.  Then the Vista/7 dialog doesn't have any help any more available from it, or the "help" button doesn't do anything / bring up anything meaningful – like a broken hyperlink in software.

    I don't even need a "What's this?" pop-up.  Just get me a help topic that describes the dialog box I'm looking at!!

    Example: System properties dialog (or "Advanced system settings" link in Vista/7 that brings up the old-school System dialog).  That dialog has no help available what-so-ever for it that I can easily find from either that dialog or the newer "System" control panel window that links to it.  And it's those more advanced dialogs that I am more likely to need help on.  Naturally, previous versions of Windows offered some level of help for it.

  35. -dan says:

    @ mike

    Come on, people drop syllables all the time out of laziness which is why you go by Mike and I go by Dan instead of Michael and Daniel.

    I can imagine someone talking quickly and fading out the couldn't into could. Before you know it someone thought they heard could and starts using it.  It's like the telephone game people pass on the wrong info but it started with someone not properly speaking.

    I realize there are many reasons why speech, word usage and grammar change, but I'm convinced laziness, among many, is one of those factors.  

  36. mike says:

    They drop syllables all the time because in their dialect, those syllables are optional. Is it "lazy" to have dropped the -g in "singing" and "talking" and "walking"? Remember that language is learned and transmitted orally, and you get it from the people around you; you don't study it out of book and then are just too lazy to do your homework.

    Anyway, there's no chance you'll convince me that there is such a thing as "language laziness" in native speakers. Language is so ingrained in people, and is used so unconsciously, that laziness is no more a factor in how people speak than it is in the way they breathe. ("Those people are just too lazy to take deep breaths.")

    I suggest the book "What Language Is" by John McWhorter as a starting point for learning a bit about how language actually works.

  37. DWalker59 says:

    @mike:  I like your comment on "begs the question".  You are right.  I'll try to stop wincing when I see people using this phrase to mean "raises the question".

  38. RichardDeeming says:

    @mike: If you drop the "g" in "singing", they you're "sinning"! :o)

    Or did you mean the second "g", to give "singin"? That's definitely lazy.

    Oral transmission of language causes a lot of confusion – for example:

    failbook.failblog.org/…/funny-facebook-fails-suspicious-bakery

  39. RichardDeeming says:

    @JM: If we do have a common definition for words, explain the American predilection for "I could care less". To any non-American English speaker, that implies that you *do* care; to an American, it implies that you *don't* care.

  40. voo says:

    @Simon Farnsworth I think your examples aren't the best, because there already existing words got some special meaning (at least I think they did). But then there's the Sokolowski quote by mike which has amongst other things "quantum shift" and that's really similar. So it's all right – not that anyone ever had a fighting chance to stop the development. But I'm still allowed to feel a bit elitist when someone gets it "wrong", aren't I? :)

Comments are closed.