Smart Phones Make Us Look Dumb With Auto Correct

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Have you ever typed a text into your smart phone and sent it, only to realize that the auto correct feature changed "Disney" to "divorce?" Ben Zimmer, On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine, talks about hilarious and shocking messages sent after auto correct went wrong.

NEAL CONAN, host:

You know the feeling: You type a message on your virtual keyboard, press send and realize the message does not quite say what you meant it to. A quick stop to IKEA morphs into a trip to Ukraine. The text intended to tell your daughter of plans to go Disney, informs her instead that you plan to divorce, or that quick message to your boss - one sec turns into one sex. The culprit is called auto correct. When your smart phone helpfully inserts what it thinks your thick fingers meant to write, and it's not without its flaws.

Ben Zimmer, The New York Times Magazine's "On Language" columnist, writes about some bizarre auto correct concoctions in the upcoming issue of the magazine. So we want to hear yours. Come on, confess, tell us your embarrassing, odd or strangely true auto corrections. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address, if you dare, is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website and find a link to the latest "On Language" column. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ben Zimmer with us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Columnist, The New York Times Magazine): Hi, Neal. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And for those of our listeners who's still typing in Morse code, explain what auto correct is.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, auto correct is a feature that you'll find on smart phones. The phones these days will try their best to guess what you mean to say when you might not be typing it quite right. And, of course, this happens quite a lot these days, especially with the iPhone from Apple, the Android phones from Google and also Microsoft's Windows phones that use these virtual keyboards.

So instead of having a hard keyboard to type into, you have to do your best on tapping on this keyboard that's made up of pixels, and it can cause problems for a lot of users who might not quite hit the right key. And so there's a constant attempt to try to keep you on path and to read what you are typing into the phone and make it correct. And it works a lot of the time, but when it doesn't work, it can really fall down on the job and that's when we notice some really startling and sometimes hilarious mistakes that can happen.

CONAN: Well, Philipa(ph) in Boston emailed us. I'm a high school senior applying to college. I was very amused when my iPhone changed Harvard to garbage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. That could get you into trouble there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And you're the "On Language" correspondent. You're not the tech geek. How did you get involved in this?

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, you know, this is an interesting intersection of language and technology, and, you know, I've been interested in this sort of thing for quite a while or going back to when word processing programs would try to spell check your work but sometimes the spell checker would get completely messed up by what you were typing and give you a suggestion that you really didn't want. And some people sometimes just take these suggestions without thinking about it, so I had been collecting examples like these for a while.

But now, just in the past year or so, this whole phenomenon has really exploded because so many people have smart phones now. The iPhone and the Android phones and now the Windows phones are hugely successful, so a lot of people are trying to deal with this interface that will lead to some amazing linguistic goofs.

CONAN: Well, this, for example, from Gary(ph) in Overland Park, Kansas. In a prior job at a large university, I was sending a mass email announcement to faculty and staff to tell them that one of our key administrative systems was unavailable. In the closing, I attempted to say I am sorry of any inconvenience this may have caused. I misspelled inconvenience. The auto correct procured the following line: I am sorry for any incontinence this may have caused.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: My error was reported in a Harvard publication of an example of why we must be careful with the auto correct feature. It took me years to live down that embarrassment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. It's - the funniest examples seem to happen when you're sending off an email to, you know, other colleagues at work or perhaps a loved one or perhaps it's parents and children or some sort of social interaction where there's a lot of opportunity for embarrassment. And so a little mistake like that might be hard to laugh off, but, of course, we can look at all these mistakes that people are making and just think, well, at least it wasn't me who made that mistake.

CONAN: This is from Patrick in Palo Alto: When we type our daughter's name, Maeve, into the cell phone, and that's spelled M-A-E-V-E, it auto corrects to NAFTA. It's resulted in an unusual nickname for a 10-month-old girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, see, that's a good example of - you can actually figure out what the phone is trying to do in that case. It's just - it doesn't have that name, Maeve, in its dictionary. There's lots of lots of names, you know, proper names and the dictionary can't necessarily encompass all of them. It happened to have a word that was close to it, but close in that the M is close to the N when you type on this virtual keyboard.

CONAN: So it anticipates that you've made a mistake.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. It's constantly looking to see, well, if this isn't in the dictionary that's on the phone, then what could you possibly mean? And it will look at things like, what keys are close to the keys that you typed. On the assumption that you are having a fat finger error, that you were typing -you're trying to hit one key and you accidentally hit another one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah. I was texting somebody about the show we're doing today in earlier in the program and said it was about the battle of Tora Bora and it auto corrected to Tora Nora.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: Right. That's another case. You know, Tora Bora may - you know, this was a problem, again, back in the days of - when Microsoft Office was trying to build its spell checker they decided, well, okay. We'll try to put in all of these proper names, names of people, names of places. But it was really hard for them to keep up.

So, for instance, when they released Microsoft Office 2007, they had included the name Osama. But a senator from Illinois named Obama had not quite reached the fame to include it in the spell check dictionary. So if you typed in Obama, it would suggest Osama for a little while until they added that to the dictionary.

CONAN: That's a patch. Anyway, we're talking with Ben Zimmer, the "On Language" columnist for The New York Times magazine. Call us with your auto correct glitch. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Heather is on the line, calling from Tampa.

HEATHER (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Heather. You're on the air.

HEATHER: Hi. Yes. On my BlackBerry one time I put crap and then I put hahahaha without spacing and it automatically goes to Haitians.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HEATHER: So my text was crap Haitians.

CONAN: So you can get into trouble for that.

HEATHER: I did. Yeah. I was kind of, like, whoops. Oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And so, you didn't get a chance to proofread any of that before you sent it?

HEATHER: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right, Heather. Thanks very much for the call.

HEATHER: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's - here's an email from Colleen(ph) in Charlotte. My husband sent me a touching text message in which he purported to call me his little princess. The message I received: I'm his little primate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. Again, you know, between loved ones, there's a lot of pitfalls there. You know, I saw someone trying to call his significant other babe. And it ended up as baboon. In that case, it seems like the phone was trying to look at the first letters of it and auto complete it. So, maybe, if you type B-A-B-O by accident, instead of E, it will fill in the rest of the word as baboon. But, of course, you don't want to call your loved one a baboon.

CONAN: Let's see. We go next to Matt(ph) and Matt is with us from Birmingham, Alabama.

MATT (Caller): Yeah. Hey, Neal. I recently visit a buddy on Taos, New Mexico. Each time I texted a friend or family member to say where I was, the auto correct says I was in tacos and not Taos.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, maybe you spent the entire vacation in a fast food Mexican restaurant.

MATT: Yeah, something like that. It was a little strange.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matt.

MATT: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. The phenomenon, you type - you talk about, Ben Zimmer, while it's really been accelerated by a website that you write about as well in your piece, damnyouautocorrect.com.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. That website has been a huge success since it launched last fall. Almost immediately, within days, this website was getting, you know, at least a million page views a day, hundreds of submissions every day, kind of overwhelming the creator of the site, Jillian Madison. But she's actually parlaying that into a book. The book will be out in March. And so, clearly, there's a huge appetite for this kind of humor, this unintentional humor that our phones are creating for us.

CONAN: Let's go next to Maynard(ph). Maynard with us from Oakland.

MAYNARD (Caller): Hello. Yes. I'm kind of - kind of a Luddite. And my phone is using T9, doesn't have a full keyboard. And when I type the word geranium, which happens to be the name of a preschool, my phone thinks - it gave me a very confusing stew of consonants which I finally discovered was the word Herzegovina.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: The second half of a country that is a part of former Yugoslavia.

MAYNARD: Indeed. My phone apparently is much more international and not into flowers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I hope your children manage to find their way to school.

MAYNARD: Yes. I did not drop them off at Herzegovina by mistake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. As you look at this phenomenon, Ben, the - it tells us something because it - each of us - each of our phones is individual. It tries to interpret what we have been typing. It's based on our history as well, so each of these phones is going to come up with a different auto correct garble.

Mr. ZIMMER: That's true. That's true. They call it learned behavior, so that your phone is actually learning as you type and trying to keep track of, you know, the things that you get wrong. But also if, for instance, you type something and it gives you a suggestion and you say, no, I don't want that, then the phone will try to be smart about it and not offer that suggestion to you in the future and not do an auto correct. But - so that means that everybody's phone has different behavior like this. And it can actually be hard to reproduce some of these - some of them seem pretty obvious and you can figure out exactly what's going on.

But at the top of the show, you mentioned the one about the father sending the text, your mom and I are going to divorce next month, when he meant to type Disney. I still am scratching my head about that one. I don't really know how you can, like, try to type Disney and end up with divorce. But I'm assuming that that actually happened and that submission to damnyouautocorrect was not a fake.

CONAN: Because they do try to establish whether it might be possible that that might have happened.

Mr. ZIMMER: They do. They have a team of folks who try it out on all their phones so they get a range of different behavior. And usually they can figure it out or reproduce it. But, yeah, that's one of the unusual aspects of this, is that everybody's phone will act slightly differently.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Zimmer about his most recent "On Language" column for The New York Times Magazine. You can wait for your newspaper on Sunday or you can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This from Catherine(ph): I'm a photographer and was texting my boyfriend who's also a photographer. Instead of writing out raw files, a format of shooting, I tried to write a shorter version - R-A-W, all in capitals then a small S. My iPhone changed this to Rawalpindi...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...which is a military headquarters/city in Pakistan.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, that's a real stretch on that one. It's interesting that a lot of these happen when people put two words together without a space. And that version without a space, it just happens not to be in the dictionary. So if you type White House without a space between white and house, you might end up with whorehouse as the suggestion. It's just one of many embarrassing cases where it's just a matter of what happens to be in the dictionary, what forms are in the dictionary. And if it's not, you might end up with something wildly inappropriate.

CONAN: A friend - this from an email in Kathy(ph): A friend recently attempted to respond to some good news from me with a hearty woo-hoo. This was corrected - apparently, by the rabbinical division of iPhone - to Elohim, which is the Hebrew name for God. Now, of course, we say Elohim when any good news comes our way.

Mr. ZIMMER: That's great. I mean, and that actually points to another shortcoming in these phones. When people are texting, they very often have these interjections which might have a lot of repeated letters, you know, woo-hoo, or another, you know, caller mentioned ha-ha-ha or whatever, these various interjections. And it's very hard for the phone to predict which ones are, you know, just mistakes for something else.

And so, you know, one that I mentioned in the column was, yeahhhh, spelled with four Hs, changes to uranium. And you can actually see how that works because again it's that fat finger phenomenon where the letters kind of happened to match up. But that's a big problem with these phones is like trying to figure out with these emphatic interjections with repeated letters that of course will not be in the dictionary.

CONAN: Next is Maggie(ph), Maggie with us from Pittsburgh.

MAGGIE (Caller): Hi, everybody.

CONAN: Hi, Maggie, go ahead, please.

MAGGIE (Caller): Yes, I was texting about volunteer protocol and thought it would be a good idea as a final step when we were interviewing volunteers that they have a follow-up with the nurse. So when I texted, I texted in: I think a final step should be a nude interview, versus nurse interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAGGIE: It was a little scary and a little strange, but I'm glad the only person I sent that off to was the volunteer coordinator.

CONAN: So it didn't result in a flood of applications.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MAGGIE: Or lack thereof.

CONAN: Thanks, Maggie.

MAGGIE: So thank you so much for letting me share that story.

CONAN: Sure. This from Kristen(ph): Mardi Gras was auto-corrected to Marxist head.

Mr. ZIMMER: Wow.

CONAN: And Shelly(ph) in Salt Lake City says: Sorry, that time does not work for me, but thank you for trying to tongue me in.

Mr. ZIMMER: Yeah. Yeah.

CONAN: That sent while trying to set up an appointment. And these are some of the examples, or examples like that in Ben Zimmer's column. And we've not had a chance to talk with you, Ben Zimmer. In fact, since you took over from William Safire - and this is of course a column that a lot of people had a great reverence for - I wonder: How has it gone for you?

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, it's been fantastic. Yeah. I officially inherited the column last March. And I've just had a wonderful time. And it's always fun to talk about something like auto correct like we're talking about now, where it's a language issue but it's something that people are coming to grips with. Every day, coming to grips with this new technology and, you know, so I love reporting on things that have to do with language and pop culture or technology, but then also looking at the deeper roots for how these things develop.

CONAN: William Safire, generally more interested in etymology.

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, well, I'm very interested in etymology as well. And I work a lot of that in. I also keep an eye on politics as William Safire, of course, was quite good at doing. I try to be as eclectic and far-ranging as I can in my coverage of language issues.

CONAN: It's a big mantle to inherit, though.

Mr. ZIMMER: Big shoes to fill, I'm constantly reminded, yes.

CONAN: I have to ask, do you own a smart phone? Is there a favorite auto correct story of your own?

Mr. ZIMMER: You know, I do have it, but I have a Droid, which is, you know, one of the Android phones.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ZIMMER: But I actually have turned off my auto correct on that phone because I figure if there are going to be mistakes, they better be my own rather than caused by my phone. So it is possible to turn this off. Not everybody realizes it because it's just by default is set on. So if it's really bothering you, then that's always an option for you.

CONAN: Ben Zimmer, we're delighted to speak with you and continued good luck with the column.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Ben Zimmer, The New York Times Magazine "On Language" columnist. You can find a link to his upcoming column on our website at npr.org.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at Earth's shifting magnetic field, plus plans for a more intelligent electrical grid. That's all tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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