Future Grammar Checkers
My parents purchased a Texas Instruments 99/4 computer in 1981. How was the word processing? A massive upgrade was required to connect that beast to a printer, and I do not think there were many word-processing programs. Yet there was one bright spot. It had an excellent typing tutor program that I never used...
My father purchased his second computer in 1983 to aid his self-publishing efforts. It was a Wang PC and ran the proprietary Wang word processor. At the time, this was the best word processor available for home use. Unfortunately, we did not have any other programs in the Wang, and I do not think many were available. Perhaps a spreadsheet or database? However, Wang PC had an ace up its sleeve. It had an impact printer (incapable of producing graphics), and the documents it made looked fantastic. One could argue that they looked better (crisper and easier to read) than today’s best laser printers.
By today’s standards, a Wang computer is pathetic, but it was absolute magic for a kid like me. Finally, I could type out a document and correct my mistakes. No white out required! But that was not the best part. The word processor had a spell checker!!! The Wang transformed me into the highest levels of thirteen-year-old spelling talents. Yet, the spell checker was slow, and the suggested words were terrible. Yet, I was in love.
I wish I had my earlier material to share, but the hard drive crapped out, and we lost everything. My father was really upset about losing his books. Ahh, the importance of backups.
Later, my father upgraded to Office Writer, and this was a vast improvement over the Wang. Still later, I convinced him to upgrade to a PC with windows 3.11 and Microsoft Word. Wow, what an improvement.
I would like to get off-topic for a moment. Let’s rewind the clock to the year 1920. How did one publish a book? Authors used a pen or pencil to write a book. They took the handmade pages to a typesetter and manually set the printing press type. Where was the editor? That was an optional step, and the typesetter did some spell-checking. Back then, people spelled better and early books were full of errors.
In the ‘30s, typewriters became popular, but this invention did not change the publishing process. They invented offset printing in the ‘40s, which allowed a typed document to be mass-produced. This reduced the printing cost because it eliminated typesetting, but a new problem occurred. Documents needed to be formatted for printing, which is tricky for a typewriter.
In the late ‘70s, computers with word processors became available. As a self-publisher, the most significant advantage was not the spell-checking, saving, or editing. It was the ability to format the document for publishing. But this requires some explanation.
You will see two standard formats if you pick up a book and turn to a page with text. The first is proportional spacing. Meaning that the amount of space allocated for each character is different. Look at the space required for ten characters. PPPPPPPPPP iiiiiiiiii. The Is take up half of the Ps space. The web page program you use to read this blog has proportional spacing.
The second thing you will see in a book is the spacing is “justified,” meaning that all the text on the left lines up vertically, and so does the right. From a distance, the text appears as a big centered rectangle. Computers accomplish this by making the spaces between words have different lengths from sentence to sentence.
Mechanical typewriters (with one exception, the IBM Selectric III. Side note. My father considered getting a Selectric III over getting a computer. Side-side note. Try to find a working one on eBay. They go for big bucks!) were monospaced and justified spacing could only be achieved with a typesetter.
Why were these two spacing features so crucial to a self-publisher? Books cost money, and more pages are more expensive to print. Yet, readers dislike reduced text. Formatting solves this problem. But why is it extra important for a self-publisher? Books used to be sold in price groups. For example, $4.99 books were about 300 pages. But, if your book was 290 pages, you (whoever paid to print the book) made more money. So, self-publishers invested in good typewriters and computers to develop efficient formatting.
Around 1995, self-publishing changed dramatically because authors could upload a PDF file and print (publish) a book. The quality and accuracy were far higher, and the setup cost was far lower. Now with eBooks and web pages, this is mute. A person could write a book on their phone or “publish” a YouTube video.
Back to the blog. Since windows 3.11, I have kept up with the latest editions of Microsoft Word and added two spelling and grammar checkers. What an improvement over typing on a computer with a green screen. But what is the future of such products?
It’s tough to predict the future, and I blogged about this difficulty:
However, despite my warnings, I wanted to give it a shot with the future of grammar and spell checkers. But hang on, this should be a simple task. “They will get better.” Meaning more accurate spell-checking, improved content tips, and more effective grammar checking. Not that hard to predict the future.
Yet, I believe there is additional room for prediction. For example, in my third book, I invented the alien race called the Veronn. Wait a moment. My spell-checking just flagged that word because it is not in the English language. Is Veronn a noun or verb? Does it need to be capitalized? Are two Veronn called Veronn or Veronns? Considering that I made up the word, I can assign any rule I desire.
Fictional words are an enormous problem for spell checkers. The best present technology can do is ignore (not flag) an unrecognized word. So, my first prediction for future spell checkers is to have a detailed entry for invented words. This leads to my second prediction for spell checkers. They will search the internet for unknown words and make “educated” suggestions. Essentially, an interactive spell checker.
For Grammar checkers, my big prediction is to analyze a document for the author’s style and adapt the rules to follow that style. Another area for improvement is the overall style. “The phrase dynamite is no longer popular. Consider the following suggestions.” Another area is logic. “That sentence makes little sense within the content of this paragraph.” And content. “Female readers will find this sentence offensive.” Other. “This sentence contains a pun.” “This sentence is redundant. Consider deleting.”
I also see a revolution coming. There are far too many inconsistent grammar and spelling rules. The grammar and spell check people might get together and establish firm rules. The various programs fight each other, and it is getting worse with each revision.
What about using artificial intelligence to analyze documents to develop better grammar checkers? I suspect word-processing programmers were unsuccessful in this area. English is too chaotic, and sound documents require proper and improper rules.
What is a bridge too far? I do not think grammar checkers will ever be able to evaluate the content or the big picture. “The main character’s motivation is unclear.” “Where did Sally get the knife?” “Add a paragraph to describe the scene.” “This description is weak.” Can artificial intelligence analyze cherished stories and come up with some basics? I think this arduous task will take a long time to achieve.
Well, I have made some lofty predictions. Hopefully, my four blog readers will live long enough to see if I hit the mark.
You’re the best -Bill
January 18, 2023
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