Everyone’s had a “Damn you, autocorrect!” moment. Maybe you told a loved one you’re going to kill them so hard right on the mouth. Or you texted something after a second date that guaranteed there would not be a third. Perhaps you simply sent a string of nonsense that made someone worry for your sanity. Autocorrect can be hilarious, life-ruining, and everything in between. Sometimes it’s just ducking stupid.
But this quiet, theoretically invisible technology wields incredible power. Autocorrect allows us to type quickly and sloppily and let the software figure it out much like Google’s “Did you mean…” turns gibberish into a search for Eyjafjallajökull. But think about the implication of that: Your phone knows you so well it can correct your mistakes. As typing into a phone becomes an increasingly powerful and prevalent interface, technology that understands what we say and how we say it will be immensely powerful. There’s already an app that relies upon autocomplete to fill out your dating profile. The same technology is filling in missing words in historic texts and documents. The downside is autocorrect can lead to an id-based groupthink that leaves everyone communicating in the same voice. That’s how Google searches started correcting “Muslims report terrorism” to “Muslims support terrorism.” These systems see what an individual does and says and assume everyone else sees and says the same.
It’s long been established that language depends on the medium. Study after study has shown that people type differently on a thumb-sized keyboard than on a laptop. But no one can say for sure if “textese” is fundamentally changing how people communicate, even if some argue that texting and autocorrect are undermining the ability to spell and punctuate. “People who yesterday unlearned arithmetic will soon forget how to spell,” James Gleick, the author of books like The Information, wrote a few years ago. There’s evidence suggesting he’s right. A few years ago a survey of 2000 people found that one-third of respondents could not spell “definitely,” two-thirds could not spell “necessary,” and 91 percent rely upon spellcheck to some degree. Of course, that highlights a trend that may well have started with the introduction of spell-checkers 30-odd years ago.
I’m different though. I know when to use its and it’s, and that “embarrassed” has two R’s and two S’s. I should, because I write for a living. I have the best words, as Donald Trump might say. Or so I thought, until I went into my iPhone’s settings and turned off the auto-correction feature. I turned everything else off too: auto-capitalization, caps lock, and that thing where double-tapping the spacebar inserts a period. For seven days, I swore, I would receive no help whatsoever from my phone. I wasn’t sure what would happen. I type on my phone a lot, but I don’t use many shortcuts or the auto-complete options that pop up. I didn’t know if I’d miss autocorrect, or even notice its absence.
Turns out I would miss autocorrect more than I ever imagined.
I generally type quickly, sloppily, and distractedly. This means there are a surprisingly large number of words I invariably misspell. “Toyota,” for some reason. “Cabernet.” Also “tomorrow.” (Here’s how I typed tomorrow 11 times in a row: tomorrow tomororw tomorrow tonorkrmow tonrowwo tonorrow tonorrow tonorrow tonorrow tomotrow tomorrow.) Give me a word with an I followed by an O and I will transpose those letters every time. Sometimes I type too quickly, so letters don’t register. Sometimes I tap too many times and spell balloooon. I rarely noticed this until now. Autocorrect always fixed it.
We all make mistakes when typing, of course. I made dozens while writing this. Grammarly, a desktop app and browser extension that checks your spelling and grammar, found its users make 3.82 mistakes per 100 words. The most common are dropped articles like “an” or “the” and improper spacing around punctuation. Jennifer Rich, an English professor at Hofstra University, says a tool like Grammarly help students, but she can always tell when they’ve used one. “They’re less likely to go back and read what they’ve written before they turn it in,” she says, because they assume the paper is perfect because there aren’t any red squiggles. “And sometimes Autocorrect makes really huge mistakes!” She’s had student turn in papers with some pretty epic typos. “And they’ll say, ‘Oh, that was Autocorrect.’ And I’m like, no, that was you not proofreading!”
We’re far worse typists when we’re tapping on small screens with fat thumbs or trying to use big screens with one hand. SwiftKey, the popular keyboard app now owned by Microsoft, has found that it corrects 21 percent of typed words. Among English speakers, the number is 26 percent. That means one in four words you typed in your last text was wrong. For languages with a lot of accents, the number is even higher; people just type the letters and trust the software to add the flourishes. They don’t just need autocorrect, they rely on it.
Without help, I sent horrendous typos to just about everyone. This is a problem, and not just for communication. A recent study found that 50 percent of respondents believe that poor spelling skills mean you’re an idiot or you’re careless. If people judged me, they at least did so quietly. No one said anything. But then, perhaps we’re all so inured to the messiness of tap-typing that spelling, syntax, and punctuation don’t matter anymore.
Not only did my spelling suffer, the way I typed changed, too. I’ve always had a penchant for sending the occasional all-caps HAPPY BIRTHDAY text or reminding a friend that I am VERY excited about dinner tonight. That’s a PITA with caps-lock turned off. Shift-V-shift-E-shift-ah forget it. I stopped using contractions, because it’s faster to type “cannot” than to flip to the apostrophe. I wrote in bursts, using “send” instead of punctuation. I typed like I was talking to a computer—flatly and without emotion. Is this what #teens sound like? I never did quit double-tapping the space bar at the end of each sentence, expecting it to insert a period and a space. With that turned off, it simply added two spaces, creating Faulkner-length sentences. I didn’t even have a capital letter in there to give me a at least a little “Oops, typo” credibility, because that feature is turned off, too.
After a week my typing is generally OK, as long as I pay attention. And there are some upsides to life without autocorrect. The Internet is broadly uninterested in capital letters, and without autocorrect I am now totally with it. I’m practically texting like a #teen. My keyboard no longer forces me to spell iPhone like a corporate sycophant. When I type something like Tumblr or Peeple or Washio or any other startup with a silly name, my phone doesn’t silently judge Silicon Valley’s absurd naming practices (even if it should). And not for nothing, I haven’t sent a single unintentional sexual innuendo.
It just feels different, though, typing this way. It feels downright un-Internetty. Damn near the entirety of Silicon Valley is dedicated to doing things that make life easier. With a few taps I can summon a meal, a car, a housekeeper. I can subscribe to toilet paper, hire a snake charmer, even order a kayak and get it in two days. As we move to chat as an interface, as everything devolves into messaging, the words we type are currency. They’re the coins we drop into the arcade game that make everything spring to life. As apps get faster and the interface more seamless, our ability to type becomes the bottleneck. Until dictation gets a whole lot better, we’re all stuck hammering on glass with our thumbs.
Autocorrect (and autocomplete) helps people who couldn’t otherwise communicate effectively with a computer; it helps people whose native languages don’t translate well to hamfistedly typing on a glass screen. It makes typing faster, easier. And typing is everything. Turning autocorrect back on after a week without it felt being given one of those quarters on a string that you can drop into an arcade game, yank out, and use again until you can’t possibly mash buttons anymore. It’s a hack, a cheat code. And it makes everything about the most important gadget we own just a little bit better.