Friday, September 17, 2010

Still Life With Robin: Correct Me If I'm Wrong (But Not If I'm Right!)

by Peggy Robin

The hazards of modern life keep multiplying. My latest example: computerized auto-corrections that are not correct. Here's what just happened to my family. My older daughter's away at college in Boston. A couple of days ago she asked us to send her some odds and ends, things she needs that she can't easily pick up at the campus store. She knows we routinely place orders for household items with Amazon because the prices are low and we always get free shipping. (You may remember my previous column about the lure of free shipping and other frequent-shopper perks.) So her father receives a text message from her, asking for (among other things) chopsticks. That struck him as an odd request, but then he thought to himself, college is for exploring new things. Maybe she's in a club that's putting on some sort of Chinese banquet. He texted back, "How many?" and she answered, "10."

So, like the good dad that he is, he went on Amazon for her, searched a bit until he found a good deal on chopsticks, paid for them and had them shipped to her direct. He didn't think to include a note.

A couple of days later, our daughter finds a box waiting for her at the student mail service. She opens it to find ten pairs of chopsticks, and thinks, "What's this?" but then shrugs, figuring it must have been a mix-up in someone else's Amazon order. Oh well.

It was unlike our daughter not to acknowledge a package, so when he did not hear from her, her dad picked up the phone and called. "Did you get the chopsticks?"

"Yes, I got a box of chopsticks. I didn't think they were from you, though. Why on earth would you send me chopsticks?"

"Because you asked for them! I have the text message." He scrolled back through the text messages on his iPhone, and sure enough, there was the word "chopsticks."

It took a while for our daughter to realize what had happened. The auto-correction feature on her phone had turned the typed word "chapsticks" into "chopsticks" and she never noticed what happened.

Now she's facing the chilly winds of autumn and winter in Boston without a supply of her favorite brand of lip balm ... and she's merrily giving out pairs of chopsticks to her friends to use as hair ornaments and window props and whatever other creative uses college students can make of these Chinese eating utensils.

This was a fairly benign example of auto-correction gone wrong. There's more mischief, I think, with the auto-completion feature of my email program, which anticipates the email address I have in mind as soon as I type the first two letters.

Here I am composing a routine email to my younger daughter to remind her about her dental appointment. I type the C and then the L of her email address and up pops the email address I use day in and day out for business correspondence. Unthinkingly, I hit "enter" and that business email address ends up in the TO: line of my message, and even more unthinkingly, I hit "send." Now several colleagues are scratching their heads wondering why I'm butting into such a personal matter as their oral hygiene!

You'd think after a mistake like that, I'd disable the auto-completion feature of my email program. But it's just too convenient, too much of a time-saver for me to take that step. And ninety-eight percent of the time, it does just what I want it to do. Another one percent of the time, I catch it inserting the wrong email address and I make the correction before I hit send. It's that remaining one percent that trips me up. It's not so bad to send dental reminders to people I work with. No real harm there. I had a bit more explaining to do, however, when, several years ago, I sent a personal note meant for an old friend who was going through a messy divorce to a different friend whose marriage was, as far as I knew, rock solid.

That's one of the many good reasons why all email messages should begin with a salutation. I've long thought that email correspondence should follow the etiquette of postal mail, and that all messages should begin with some form of greeting, followed by the person's name. If I had omitted that little nicety in my email about the divorce, the recipient of my note might have thought I viewed her perfectly lovely husband as a rat best put out of her life. (This would not have saved me, however, if by some awful coincidence, the two friends with similar-beginning email addresses had shared the same first name!)

I am glad to be able to do more than relate these cautionary tales. I have some practical advice, as well:

1. Always type your message text first and fill in the email address second.
2. Always re-read/proofread what you type before hitting the send button.
3. If you forget steps 1 and 2 more than 3 times in 3 years, then you'd better disable that auto-complete feature!


  1. I had an experience with another technology, the voice message that translates to text. I was to meet a friend and was running late. So I left a message on her phone. I said, "It's Ellen and I'll be a bit late." The text she received said, "Joseph Stalin is late." That sure surprised her!

  2. Great story! If I can get a few more good ones like that, there's another column that practically writes itself. Thanks for writing,