AutoCorrect and AutoCapitalization

Among the many mixed blessings bestowed on the world by technology is the ubiquitous word processor feature known as the spellchecker.

Spellcheck and it’s variants are useful assistants most of the time. AutoCorrect, for example, is a very helpful feature, able to not only detect many common errors and correct them on the fly but also, if so programmed, to immediately convert user-defined strings and abbreviations into words, phrases, or even entire paragraphs of text. That’s especially helpful if you use the same text or comment repeatedly (it’s sort of a poor-man’s macro feature).

There are situations, however, when the rules used by spellcheckers seem mysterious and arbitrary to us mere mortals.

I’m not going to try to decipher any of those mysterious rules here — I only want to point out some of the quirks of Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect feature where capitalization is involved.

Yes: one of the things AutoCorrect does is “fix” capitalization for you. Once again, this is often very helpful (especially if you’re a bit too quick and/or lazy with the shift keys). But as with all the other corrections word processors make automatically for you, this isn’t one you should rely on blindly.

Here are (just a few) examples why:

  • When it comes to US states, most will be auto capitalized. But for some reason Iowa, Maine, Ohio, and Texas won’t be. Watch out for the “New” states and the compass points (north, south, west) as well.
  • Many countries receive correction, but others are ignored. Pakistan is capitalized, but not India (because of the ink?); Canada but not Mexico; Iraq but not Iran; Austria but not Germany; Sweden but not Finland.
  • Only a few signs of the zodiac are automatically capitalized (Capricorn, Gemini, Sagittarius, Taurus).
  • Several of the planets aren’t capitalized. This makes sense for mercury, earth, and mars (which have other meanings, so they’re hedging), but why Venus?
  • Keeping with mythology, there’s a slight bias in favor of the Greek gods compared to their Roman counterparts, with plenty of misses for both.
  • Certain public figures get capitalized, but others don’t. Nixon, Reagan, Clinton; not Fillmore, McKinley, or Kennedy (not Kennedy? Really?). Modern vice presidents don’t fare particularly well. In a bothersome oversight, Romney receives autocorrection but Obama doesn’t (but the note below might explain why).
  • Corporations are covered inconsistently. Exxon and Xerox are fine; Pepsi and Merck aren’t. Near the top of the Fortune 500, Verizon, Kroger, Pfizer, and Walgreen are covered; McKesson, Boeing, and Humana aren’t.
  • Brand names are similarly up for grabs. Tylenol gets respect, for example; advil and nuprin not so much.
  • Do fictional names reveal certain biases of the programmers? Many Tolkien names receive capitalization from AutoCorrect (Bilbo, Gandalf, Elrond, Rivendell…but not Mordor or Gondor); Star Wars names get similar treatment (it’s good to be Anakin or Chewbacca). Hogwarts is recognized by AutoCorrect; disappointingly, Gormenghast is not.

To reemphasize, the above collection is not intended to explain anything. It’s merely a list of unscientific observations. However it demonstrates nicely why it’s never a good reason to turn your brain off and depend entirely on automation. And, just maybe, you’ll get a little bit of amusement from this post.

NOTES: Capitalization is far from the only AutoCorrect issue. There are a number of “spellchecker errors” that are worth their own posts; it’s likely that this will become a category of its own on this blog over time.

Also, I’ve used Word 2007 for the examples above. Using Word 2010 would probably have been more appropriate, but this was the version I was working with while preparing this post. Many of the above inconsistencies might have been corrected in the later version — but I have no doubt that new quirks will have been introduced in their place.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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5 Responses to AutoCorrect and AutoCapitalization

  1. Kimberley says:

    Autocorrect does seem rather arbitrary but at least I do get to add words to the dictionary in Word (I have 2010). For someone writing a dissertation that uses words from American English, British English and Australian English, it could get quite frustrating if every time I added a quotation words kept coming up as incorrect and I didn’t have a way to override that nonsense.

    • AutoCorrect lets you do some brilliant things. You can set it up both to recognize (ignore?) non-standard words and to correct words that you know you botch regularly (…I’ve considered an entry for my name – “Chris” – because when I’m in a hurry my fingers sometimes yield “Chirs”; I haven’t done it, because keeping that error forces me to proof my own correspondence carefully). Or you can use it to automate awkward spellings (set it to recognize “resumee” as “résumé” with the accent marks, for instance).

      You can also go much further, especially when you’re making the same comments constantly. On student work for example, I use “c-s” for “comma splice” and “w-w” for wrong word. I know several instructors who slap in lengthy boilerplate comments using AutoCorrect.

  2. atarunomiko says:

    Just a heads up that you reversed two letters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s name, as you admit to occasionally doing with yours. 🙂

    …Do you hate me yet? ;P

    • How could I hate you? Your careful reading has depleted all the errors on this blog! I’m going to have to add more, to keep the “Spot The Error!” contest going.
      Ironically, I chalk this particular typo up to autocorrect: I typically allow WordPress’ own internal spellchecker to flag proper names for me, and then I double check them myself. For some reason, it didn’t flag this (with either the correct or the incorrect spelling).

  3. Pingback: Copyediting for Science and Science Fiction: A Couple Tips | thebettereditor

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