by James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 7, 2016
For weeks now, my computer has been nagging me to write clearer. I checked Google, and Microsoft has upgraded Office 2016 with two new tools for Word and Outlook: Editor and Researcher. In the past, I’ve thought of adding Grammarly to Office, but using the full version is rather pricey. I wonder if the new Editor feature in Word is meant to compete with it, or similar add-on grammar checking programs? It must be a bummer for little companies that create a business by patching cracks in big programs when those cracks are filled.
Anyway, the update feels like Microsoft fed my computer a copy of On Writing Well by William Zinsser, the classic guide to clear writing. Word now bitches at me to simplify my sentences. Little red underlines and popups tell me the same thing my teachers used to write in red ink on my papers. This advice feels like a Deep Learning program studied all the works of Ernest Hemingway and now wants us to write like Papa. It’s hard on passive voice, wordy phrases, and unnecessary words. Words like “really” and “just” are superfluous. And they are, but I often use them to make my writing voice sound like my speaking voice. The AI in Word obviously thinks I sound dumb. Surely, it knows best.
When did AI minds decide clear writing in humans was needed? Did NSA computers ask Microsoft computer to help clean up our language? Spy programs would have an easier time tracking our opinions if we wrote precisely.
Do you take style and grammatical suggestions from your computer? We could tell it to shut the #@&% up. Don’t our grammatical quirks give us unique voices? Won’t Word convince all humans to sound alike? I wonder how many people around the world learn English just so they can go more places on the web? Will grammar checkers convince us all to write the same way? Maybe it’s not Microsoft, but the AI overlords. They want us to be more logical. We’re being evolved.