Saturday, October 26, 2002

Synonyms, Censorship and Software

In an essay in The New York Times (�Bowdlerized by Microsoft,� October 23, 2001) Mark Goldblatt brought to light a curious aspect of the thesaurus that�s part of Microsoft Word 2000-namely, that it seems to have a built-in political-correctness censor. Type in fool, as Goldblatt did, and you�ll get nothing but the verb trick; type in jerk and you�ll get yank, jolt, tug, and twitch. No noun synonyms for these words appear at all-and no synonyms whatsoever appear if you search for dolt, dunce, idiot, goon, numbskull, or twit. Goldblatt asked Microsoft for an explanation and eventually got the following disquieting response in an e-mail: �Microsoft�s approach regarding the spell checker dictionary and thesaurus is to not suggest words that may have offensive uses or provide offensive definitions for any words. The dictionary and spell checker is updated with each release of Office to ensure that the tools reflect current social and cultural environments.�

This might annoy me less if the dictionary and thesaurus embedded in this product otherwise showed mastery of the essentials of good English. However, I learned years ago, long before Word 2000, not to trust the suggestions offered by the spell checker and especially not by the grammar checker. The types of sentences and "errors" it flags show clearly that someone took an elementary school grammer book and encoded the rules into the software, without any appreciation for how the rules might apply (or not apply) to sophisticated adult writing.

Some people bemoan the "deterioration of the language" when they hear young people using "like" when they mean "said" but I worry about the other side of that coin as much or more. I worry about people who think they can understand and control the evolution of a language by codifying a juvenile conception of correctness, or by proscribing "unacceptable" changes or worst of all, arranging for them to disappear, through censorship or editing.

The Microsoft employees that designed this arrogant thesaurus unfortunately took their design principle from many other features embedded in Microsoft products. The company operates on the principle that because they have developed good and popular software products, they can consider themselves the ultimate authority for all questions, not just about the usability or applicability of software. In their quest to make software more usable and more helpful, they steamroll right over the user, who in many cases becomes the "spam in a can" that simply justifies the existence of the product but does not need to take charge of it or decide how it will operate.

This infuriating methodology does not prevent me from using and recommending Microsoft products. They do have many wonderful features for ease-of-use and power. I do however advise, as with real life, that the user of Microsoft products should maintain a healthy skepticism when operating these packages and a mindful awareness of their potential limitations and restrictions.

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