Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A New Type of Typo

Ah, the era of misspellings and miscommunication grows ever more complex! In an evolutionary twist on the old-fashioned typo, brought about by the latest form of digital communication, the 'text message,' readers no longer have to sort through the occasional misspellings or typos produced by pen or keyboard. The new 'text message typos' are, in fact, entirely misplaced words in the context of an otherwise normal sentence.

This strange phenomena occurs because new telephone software, designed to aid readers in inputting text messages (never an easy feat with clumsy thumbs and tiny cell phone key pads) anticipates possible word choices based on the number combination entered on the phone. For example, rather than typing the entire word "awesome," my telephone recognizes the key combination 1-9-3, and automatically suggests "awesome" as the likely word choice. When used correctly, this saves an enormous amount of time and makes text messaging a more viable means of communication, albeit in short staccato bursts.

Unfortunately, the speed of text message entry often means that the suggested words used in the message are not the right words at all! This is especially common with certain key combinations like 4-6, which in my phone is both "in" and "go." The suggested word is determined by the cell phone's software based solely on the last word that I chose when entering that particular number combination. Similarly, 4-6-6-3 represents the keystrokes for both "home" and "good," two very common words in text messages. The problem occurs when, in a desire to dash off a quick text message response, the text messenger fails to notice that his telephone has selected the wrong word corresponding to his keystrokes and inserted it into the message.

This results in strange text messages. I recently text-messaged a friend a short communication, "Hey, how are you doing today? What are you up to this afternoon?" To which I received the following response, "I'm doing home! I'm just about to in run some errands." Huh?! The apparent perceived gibberish was really the result of my friend's phone selecting the word "home" instead of "good," and "in" instead of "go."

This type of communication quirk is leading to a whole new way of understanding miscommunication. In the days of pen and paper, the most common form of miscommunication was simple spelling error. The letter writer misspelled a word, and the reader often needed only to "sound out" the word to determine what was intended by the misspelled word. By the time typewriters and computers became widely available, a new form of miscommunication was in full swing. This was the era of "missed keystroke," where the writer often failed to notice that he had struck a nearby key instead of the intended key in composing his work. Because the resulting word was not the result of misspelling but mis-typing, sounding out the word no longer worked. It was up to the reader to recognize the typo and determine the intended word. The more acquainted the reader was with the keyboard, the more likely he was to correctly interpret the misspelled word. In today's world of high powered word processors, most typos are corrected by the omnipresent Spell Checker, whose constant Big Brother-esque monitoring of all of our communication nourishes an entire generation of poor spellers (myself included), but mitigates the all-to-common problem of miscommunication.

Of course, all of this doesn't even touch the subject of poor grammar, or even worse, the semi-grammar of e-mails and instant messages for whom punctuation, capitalization, complete sentences and traditional spelling are optional, or even arbitrary. Some people become seriously apoplectic when encountering this de-evolved communication, with content like, "lol...i dunno...i might go 2 her house b4 work 2nite." While this lax grammar does not much bother me (I've even been known to partake a little myself under the usual circumstances), I am fascinated by text messaging typos. No longer do we have to sound out misspellings or recognize missed key strokes. Now we have to recognize entire words, sometimes key grammatical words, as representative of certain telephone key combinations and then supply for ourselves the correct substitute when it has been incorrectly entered. Our ability to identify the correct word indicates a remarkable degree of abstract critical thinking, revealing just how hard our brains will work to communicate effectively. While this next phase in the evolution of the typo is likely more complex than its earlier iterations, communication is not lost. In an interconnected world increasingly dependent upon our ability to communicate both critical and mundane thoughts, that's almost certainly a "home" thing.

Grace & Peace