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Why Apple Autocorrect Is Widely Loathed, and How Apple Could Think Differently About Language

I have two friends named Jay, and zero friends named Kay. Nonetheless, my iPhone insists on changing the name “Jay” to “Kay,” every single time I type it. Apple favoring names that were popular when my parents were kids contributes to my suspicion that they wish we all lived in a more “malt shop” era of the English language.

It’s not surprising that Apple, lauded and hated for its insistence on formality and control, would prefer that its users conform to proper, standardized English. The problem is, the nature of digital communication, along with blooming diversity in America, has spun many new threads of the English language. Dialects that were historically more oral than written are now solidified and broadcasted, and young people have already cemented ways to use English more efficiently in digital communications.

In college, I studied how American English was changing thanks to the Internet, and my main consensus was that what people refer to as “corruption” or a degradation in standard English literacy is actually a natural change in our language that primarily a) makes it more efficient b) creates ways for written speech to compensate for lack of body language and voice tone cues c) solidifies minority and subculture languages.

These are generally good things, although to English teachers they appear to be a cacophony of slang, misspelling, emoticons and general laziness. (Really, you’d rather write “2″ than “to?”) But looking at it differently, isn’t it kind of incredible that young people 10 years ago were given phones with nothing but numbers and created their own linguistic hacks to be able to communicate with one another at lightning speed?

It’s Apple’s refusal to acknowledge the putty-like nature of language that makes their autocorrect so embarrassingly bad for a company that in other respects is known for being intuitive and human. While autocorrect makes it easier to type on a tiny touchscreen keyboard, it also appears to be fighting slang, profanity, “newfangled” words, newer proper nouns (it loves changing brand names), and many elements of non-standard English.

Compare this to something like Google Translate, which is the only translation engine I’ve ever used that doesn’t produce 90% gibberish. Because Google Translate is human and collaborative, real people who have visceral, “real time” understandings of their language can help hone the translations to sound like how people actually talk. Think what would happen if Apple’s language database and algorithms worked with this way. Instead of feeling like autocorrect has its ears plugged, couldn’t Apple find a way to listen to how people are really talking, not just on their own phones, but in culture, and get smarter? What if your phone already knew that you were trying to type a brand name? A swear word?

While Apple’s autocorrect has become a beloved and hated part of pop culture, I suspect it will get smarter over time. For a mobile platform to truly render personal computers obsolete, typing needs to become less of a pain in the ass, and no one has yet found the solution. When they do, it will be one that doesn’t demand standard English from its users, because dictionaries don’t control language, people do.

-Becky Lang



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