Is auto-correct making us all illiterate? (Serenity Soft’s Editor)

I used to be brilliant at spelling. We had a test every morning in school (this was some time ago) and I used to get 10/10 every time. About fifteen years ago, I published a video-game plugin for Escape Velocity called ‘The Frozen Heart’. When the beta-testers and proof readers looked at it, they weren’t able to find a single spelling or grammatical error.

These days, I can’t send a text, write an email or do an article without discovering afterwards that it’s full of words I didn’t mean. Facebook is (to me) horrendous. Sometimes I have to try five or six times before it will accept that I mean what I mean, not something else.

So, in this review, I want to celebrate the most intelligent and useful piece of non-autocorrect software to have crossed my desk for years. It’s called Editor, and it’s by Serenity Software. It’s Windows-only, and is now the principal reason why I load up Windows 10 via Parallels Desktop on my Mac.

This article flows from a discussion on the QuarkXpress page on Facebook. Yes, I still use QuarkXpress, despite having had every version of InDesign since it came out.

In user interface terms, Editor is the most deliberately unfeatured software (by the way, auto-correct just tried to make that ‘unfettered’) you can possibly find. First you have to load up your document. Then you have to get it to number the sentences for you. Then you run the checker. It makes no corrections for you at all. It doesn’t even offer ‘click to correct’ like Grammatica and those others do. All it does is output a list of potential spelling mistakes, poor usage, clichés, bad style, wordy phrases and other things that let your writing down.

Then you have to go through your document—they suggest you print out both the numbered copy and the list of suggestions—and make each change one by one. Often it will not suggest what the change should be, only that you should consider making it.

The experience is as close to working with a human proofreader that I’ve come across on computer. It understands about US and International English, about different levels of formality, and about variable rules.

Why do I think this is exciting?

Well, partly because it doesn’t involve offering my writing to a crazed psychopathic computer which insists on changing ‘Allister’ into ‘alligator’, adding in spurious bullet points when I mean asterisks, correcting “it’s” to “its” when I do mean “it’s” or any of the other things which have turned perfectly literate human beings into the unschooled.

More importantly, it makes me a better writer. As the software’s website explains, a grammar-checker that offers ‘click and correct’ generally makes your document worse rather than better. A paragraph has its own rhythm. Something which the grammar checker thinks is strictly ‘wrong’ may be entirely right in context. If it was a mistake, the grammar-checker is not going to be able to offer a correction which fits the rhythm of the paragraph, matches the style of your writing, or decodes what you really intended. Worse, after the 400th correction, it’s easy to get into click-without-thinking mode, where you just accept everything offered. I’ve occasionally had to disentangle other people’s documents which have suffered from that. Sometimes it is quite impossible to know wha they intended.

Editor—like a real proof-reader—makes me rewrite the paragraph, not just try to put an Elastoplast on a sentence. What’s more, because it isn’t fixing it for you, Editor is able to offer far more suggestions. It does have some false positives, though fewer than most of the checkers I’ve seen. Most of its ‘suggestions’ or ‘considers’ are exactly that: things which are not wrong, but may be overwhelming if taken together, or might be considered poor style, or are often confused. A click-to-correct checker which offered such things would be flirting with disaster.

Editor is not as good as a trained, human proof-reader. It is not as quick as Word’s built-in checker. However, it is something you can run multiple times at different stages of a document’s development, and be sure that you will never be hunting around for an earlier, uncorrupted version.

Cheap at the price—even if the price is having to use Windows.

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