Saturday, June 05, 2010

tell it to the machine

I wrote an article recently that summed up what I've learned about grammar-checkers and their influence on people; it said the usual stuff: in general, they're bad for learning; in general, they are advancing but not fixing people's grammar; the kinds of mistakes are changing, and the salience of the remaining ones; the machine has an active interaction with the average writer that must be accounted for in the conception of the learner's system as a working language creating system.

So I showed this article to my friend, a guy I work with who happened to enter my office as I was finishing it. His response was interesting enough so that I will paraphrase it here and beg his forgiveness if I get any of it wrong. The words are far from exact but I believe I'm getting the gist of what he said.

"this is interesting (he says) because I definitely find it to be true that the machine influences the way I create language. I'm learning Japanese, and spending a lot of time texting on my phone, to my fiance, in both English and Japanese. So Japanese has this particle, -mo, and you use it all the time, it means something like "and". But as I use it on my phone, the phone program lengthens it out into "months" or some other such long word, and I then have to back-space, in texting, all those letters, to get back to "mo". So I find myself discouraged from using the word. I use it less, because I know what a hassle that is."

His comments to me make clear a number of interesting possibilities.

One is that we instinctively go for the short cut in a wide range of circumstances, so that if we type or chat, making short versions of words is an entirely natural thing to do, and avoiding words that are too long or too much of a hassle to write, is similarly natural. Second, the machine actually imposes a different reality on what we would assume to be a simple action, typing "mo." the machine in effect makes a two letter word into a six-stroke experience, and we can expect it to do the same in other circumstances; one other familiar example would be someone who wants to deliberately spell his/her name in lower-case letters, only to find that the machine is automatically capitalizing in these circumstances. The ogden nashes in this world have to find names (like ogden?) that the spell-checkers don't recognize; otherwise they have to battle the machines just to assert what they really want.

This brings up the final of my observations, and that is that the automatic functions of these machines are far more insidious in their overall influence of our writing in general- although, most of the time, they change, automatically, routine misspellings and typos like wierd or thier. They fix it; I don't have to mess with it, and overall, that's good, that is a positive influence on my writing. It's a negative influence on my learning, and definitely an impediment to my general ability to create new words at will. I'm always aware of that red line, and have to have a pretty strong motivation to leave it on a paper that I am, as a constant and impulsive editor, rereading constantly. The process of editing creates a conversation and the red and green lines are voices in the conversation: not nice voices, but critical voices which build up the pressure in my head.

I guess my last suggestion is that since this co-worker had interesting insight, and my wife also offered the bit about spelling one's name with small letters, it would really be good for me, at this point, to interview language learners and others who actively text, write or relate in some way to this insidious creature, and have insight on the influence it has on the mind and the writing process; I'm not sure how I'd word the questionnaire, but I know what I'm looking for, and I'm reasonably confident that I'll find significant influence. Life is a series of reactions to tiny little obstacles in the road, things that influence our behavior enough and often enough to permanently alter our perception or at least our understanding of what we're doing and why.