Hazards of spelling autocorrection: defiance


On an internal mailing list, a colleague asked for some recommendations on a webcam.

I was wondering if there are any models I should avoid or defiantly get.

I got this mental image of my colleague giving the salesperson the finger as he handed over his credit card.

My colleague explained, "That's an error I frequently make because Outlook by default autocorrects 'definatly' to 'defiantly' instead of 'definitely'. You should see the reaction from my manager when he asks me to do something and I write back, 'I'll defiantly do that.' I'm a terrible speller. That's why I went into math: Only single letters."

But the kicker was the end of his original message.

We'll be using Windows Live Massager.

Comments (44)
  1. Mc says:

    I always have trouble with algorithum  and maintenence too.

  2. MItaly says:

    First T9 and now the "smart" soft keyboards of smartphones bring these hazards to a whole new level.

  3. Boris says:

    But since Outlook is used mostly in the office, why prefer 'defiantly' to 'definitely'? Is defiance more common than definitiveness?

  4. Programmerman says:

    I'd beta-test Windows Live Massager. My office chair sucks, I could use a massage by the end of the work day.

  5. kog999 says:

    @Boris

    My physic powers tell me it’s because 'definatly' is closer to 'defiantly' then it is to 'definitely'. 'definatly' and 'defiantly' have only 2 letters transposed whereas 'definatly’ to 'definitely' has an a replaced with an I and extra e. I can definitely see why the algorithm decided to make the choice that it did. You make it sound like someone hard coded every possible misspelling and correct spelling and should have taken the most use case of office into account.

  6. Silly says:

    Personally I'd avoid Live Massager until they get the kinks out of it.

  7. R783 says:

    Surprising that a mathematician couldn't see the connection between "finite" (which all mathematicians can spell) and the related words "infinite" and "definite".

  8. Joshua Ganes says:

    Perhaps I'm analyzing this too much, but I can't decide whether some of the spelling mistakes in the comments are intentional or amusingly coincidental.

  9. Maurits says:

    My physic powers

    Not sure if typo or brilliant use of irony

    Back in the day I filed a bug against the Office team to have "manger" taken out of the dictionary.  They rejected the bug with the reasoning that "manger" is a perfectly good word.  My counter-argument that "but most of the time the user actually meant 'manager'" did not carry any weight, apparently.

  10. Evan says:

    "Eye halve a spelling check her;

    It came with my pea sea.

    It plane lee marks four my revue

    Miss steaks aye kin knot sea."

  11. Joshua says:

    Solution: add an auto-correct rule. Those take precedence over spellcheck.

  12. Ace says:

    Once I meant to write "sorry for your inconvenience."  It auto-corrected to "sorry for your incontinence."  Fortunately, the user found it quite funny. :)

  13. Antonio Rodríguez says:

    I don't know about Outlook (which I don't use), but my psychic powers say that it uses the same autocorrection and spellchecking engine as Word (which I use a lot). In Word, the autocorrection list is a simple list of pairs of words, such that if the first one in the pair is written, it gets silently replaced with the second one. In Spanish it's almost crazy. I'm a pretty good speller, and most of my spelling mistakes are typing errors. But the autocorrection feature almost always put the wrong word. This is infuriating when it replaces an existing (but uncommon) word or name that isn't in the spelling checker's list. So disabling autocorrection is the first thing I do after installing Word. The spellchecker's red underline is more than enough to catch errors.

    Btw: Word's autocorrection list and spellchecker's suggestions has been used in my country many times to try to prove that Microsoft is misogynist, homophobic or racist. I know, it's stupid, but a company of the size of Microsoft should take care with those details (you know, bashing the most successful software company on Earth is such a fun sport!).

  14. Disabling doesn't (always) work says:

    For this and other reasons (mainly that I write mails in two languages and I couldn't care less to switch the language) I usually turn the automatic corrections off.

    However sometimes, auto correction turns on itself again and returns. Just like herpes.

  15. RichardDeeming says:

    @Evan:

    Eye halve a spelling chequer

    It came with my pea sea

    It plainly marques four my revue

    Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.

    Eye strike a key and type a word

    And weight four it two say

    Weather eye am wrong oar write

    It shows me strait a weigh.

    As soon as a mist ache is maid

    It nose bee fore two long

    And eye can put the error rite

    Its rare lea ever wrong.

    Eye have run this poem threw it

    I am shore your pleased two no

    Its letter perfect awl the weigh

    My chequer tolled me sew.

  16. Sinan Unur says:

    I had never heard of a "little sad program with a prosecuted command" until this experience:

    blog.nu42.com/…/auto-correct-fail.html

  17. @MAurits:

    What if you're writing a Christmas sermon? I mean, everybody does that once in a while. Amirite?

  18. Since "contact" is down (and I am a bad boy) I wrote a namespace extension like cabview.dll/zipfldr.dll for XP this week. I am depressed that in GetOpenFileName the context menu is missing for the root folder (but it's fine in Explorer.exe) in all of these cases, and PathFileExists fails even though OFN_FILEMUSTEXIST works.

    Sounds like an interesting blog doesn't it? Feel free to block this comment, but please thing about it.

  19. JM says:

    @kog999: in fairness, spelling correctors that do not correct "definatly" or "definitely" *are* broken, IMO. This misspelling is so common that it *should* be on an exception list. Or you can tweak the algorithm to take word occurrence into account — "definitely" is more common than "defiantly" (by far), so misspellings of the former are likewise. You don't need statistics on usage in Office for that (although Office is as representative as any corpus, presumably).

    An algorithm that results in "defiantly" is understandable, but open to improvement. Google, for what it's worth, gets this right. So does Bing, if we want to keep it fair. In fact, the first hit on Bing is particularly relevant.

  20. Just me says:

    The fun is double with speech recognition software.

  21. Dan says:

    It's not as bad as the graduation programs recently printed by the "Lyndon B. Johnson School of Pubic Affairs".

  22. Seriously are people suggesting that a spelling corrector should treat a badly spelled word as the more likely mistake than a mis-typed one?

    definatly – defiantly.  All the right letters, simply two adjacent ones exchanged .

    definatly – definitely.  1 extraneous letter, and 1 completely wrong letter.

    By any reasonable expectation, "defiantly" is the best fit for this mistake.  The context of the software in use is irrelevant.  The literacy of the user is the bigger factor.  A spell checker is never going to be able to cope with someone who not only doesn't know how to spell a word or has mis-typed it, but who is spelling it phonetically and thus completely wrongly but in a way that makes the word they actually typed appear to be closer to some other word (or possibly even an entirely correct word which simply wasn't the one they intended).

    What next ?

    Should it always change "crush" to "crash" because someone is more likely to be writing an email on a computer about a software fault than they are to be writing about a juicer or slushy maker ?

    Sheesh.

  23. Cheong says:

    @JM: I wonder why they don't make "AutoCorrect" feature in MS Word that could complement the spell checker function in this case available in Outlook…

  24. Cheong says:

    @Richard Deeming: Nice work for simulating a poorly functioned speech-to-text software.

  25. GhostlyGhost says:

    Similarly to the "manger"/"manager" one, I recall an e-mail confirming that "Things will go smother after we switch to [component X]". Seriously, how often do you want things to go <i>smother</i>? :)

  26. Cheong says:

    @GhostlyGhost: I can imagine a manager want things "to go smother" (in the sense of conceal) if something want wrong. Maybe it could be qualified as freudian slip.

  27. @Richard Deeming: Surely you should strike a "quay"

  28. JustSomeGuy says:

    That's nothing. Even after Unisys took over Burroughs, the B20 spell-checker was suggesting that 'Unisys' should be changed to 'anuses'.

  29. Anonymous Coward says:

    I'm defiantly in the market for the Windows Live Massager.

  30. Neil says:

    @Lockwood: Even the version on Wikipedia has too many correctly spelled words…

  31. RP says:

    @Richard Deeming: You should have used 'quay' instead of 'key', and 'putt' instead of 'put' ;)

  32. Neil says:

    @JM: Actually Google autosuggests "definitely" for "defiantly", so maybe they expect people to miscorrect "definatly"?

  33. Neil says:

    Current versions of Firefox only give "definitely" as the third possible correction of "definatly"; older versions don't even offer it as a suggestion. ("definably", an single-letter correction, comes second.)

  34. Jortus says:

    IIRC, most decent spell-checkers (and search engines) use the principle of normalizing text to a pseudo-phonetic form beforehand – thus 'definatly' may easily become 'definitely', even though the letter distance between 'definatly' and 'defiantly' is smaller.

    (of course good spell checkers will take multiple measures of (in)correctness into account, like usage frequency ['definitely' is probably a lot more common in general English than 'defiantly'])

  35. voo says:

    @Jolyon Smith: That's where statistics come in handy. How often do you recon people want to write definitely vs. defiantly? (especially in business mail). 100 to 1? 1000 to 1? Well something like that. Obviously a good spell checker (or any reasonable AI algorithm) will take that into account.

    Also going by hamming distance or similar is a horrible way for spell checkers to work, that's not how misspell things.

  36. RDSchaefer says:

    I once had a boss who's last name was Penix.  You can imagine how much he hated auto-correct!

  37. Marston says:

    I hope his first name was not Hugh.

  38. Rick C says:

    Back in college I knew a guy whose last name was Teh.  He always deleted THAT entry out of Word's autocorrect.

  39. Ben says:

    Search engines (Bing/Google) do an amazing job of spell checking as the approach is based around data-collection rather than algorithmic. Definatly to definitely is very difficult from an algorithmic point of view, and very easy from a "millions of humans hitting my database with a misspelling then picking definitely" point of view. It seems that Google/Bing are capable of correcting almost any misspelling that I am capable of producing. Normally as the only "did you mean".

  40. Drak says:

    Then again the spellchecker is (imho) more there to correct typing mistakes than to help people who don't know how to spell the word in the first place.

    But that's just me, maybe because I do know how to spell most words I want to type, and if not I follow Ben's method of entering it into Google and seeing what that says.

  41. Ben Voigt says:

    I don't think it would be a good idea to auto-correct "manger" to "manager".  On the other hand, I would support adding a red squiggly to words that are incredibly rare in business communication and similar to incredibly common words, and letting the user choose "Ignore this word through current document" in the remote case where they are writing a sermon.

    On a related note, a Microsoft employee (whom I will not name) once sent out a newsletter which mentioned that on a particular holiday, "the fags were flying at half-mast".  I filed a Word bug claiming this particular F word is totally inappropriate in any business communication, and I was using Office Professional version of Word.  (My finger muscle memory didn't even let me reproduce the error while typing this comment, I went back and changed it)  The response from Microsoft was to do nothing… apparently helping their users correctly write business documents is unimportant.

  42. Waldo says:

    The problem is not spellchecker, the problem is that the English language needs to be patched.

  43. @voo – it's precisely how I want MY auto-correct to work because in 99.999% of cases I know perfectly well how to spell the word and the greater likelihood is that my fingers fumbled the typing slightly as I am also a comparatively fast touch typist.

    Your approach comes at the problem from the point of view that most people are illiterate.  Auto-correct is not the correct solution to that problem.  The answer you are looking for there is: Education.  Having technology act as a crutch for people that simply cannot spell is not going to improve their situation when they don't have that crutch on which to lean.

    I note also that you conveniently failed to address whether "crush" should be auto-corrected to "crash".  While you're at it, how about "bear" to "bare" when I type "bear in mind", or "saw" and "sore"… the list goes on ?

    And when the auto-correct FAILS to make these corrections, the poor idiot who has come to believe that the computer will ensure they never make embarrassing  mistakes comes to believe that they themselves have not made a mistake in the first place.

    Trying to correct for people's stupidity is bound to run into limitations far sooner and more often than correcting for simple mistakes in digital coordination.  By all means have tools for making a *suggestion* that perhaps the wrong word may have been used, using contextual analysis and all sorts of other statistical techniques, but NOT for SPELLING correction, and certainly not AUTOMATIC correction, which is what we're talking about here.

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