October 29, 2007

On the omnipresence of limited abilities

The system-wide spelling checker now does grammar too. Bad grammar gets a green underline instead of red.

It's not the most robust grammar checker in the world—for example, it thinks "This are good" is perfectly fine—but like the spelling checker, its omnipresence makes up for its limited abilities.

— from John Siracusa's exhaustive review of the newly updated Macintosh operating system, OSX 10.5, at ars technicha

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum, who is an actual bespoke linguist and therefore to my mind entitiled to go on about such things, says a few brisk things about computer grammar checkers. He quotes Jason Snell approvingly:

"… Grammar Check—at last, the most useless feature ever added to Microsoft Word has been added to Mac OS X! With this feature, an infinite number of monkeys will analyze your writing and present you with useless grammar complaints while not alerting you to actual grammatical errors because computers don't understand grammar. Sure, it sounds great on a box—or a promotional Web site—but anyone who knows, knows that grammar checking is a sham. Just say no."

In his review John Siracusa says the grammar checker's omnipresence makes up for its limited abilities, but this can't be the measure against which he judges all poor tools. Just because it's nearby doesn't make up for anything if it can't do the job right. And now the grammar checker, which in this case is a grammar checker not even as robust as the common run of them so roundly denounced by Mr. Snell above, is just that: ubiquitous, now capable of interposing its errant stuff anywhere the Macinosh user might care to sneak off to and write a bit of something.

Mr. Siracusa has a comprehensive knowledge of the Macintosh operating sysem in all its bewildering modern-day complexity, as his review demonstrates, and on any number of abstruse issues affecting the coding of the thing he has firm opinions that are well beyond my ability to follow. But I think I equal and perhaps surpass him in my experience with poor tools. Generally, having them at hand only increases the inevitable mischief they'll work.

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