Predicting the future

This is a sensation, I think, that we all know. We are texting a friend. We wish to take advantage of the full richness and range of the English language and tell them to bugger off. Just for an example. We type ‘bugge’, and the phone obeys, docile and uncomplaining beneath the agitation of thumbs. Then we add the final ‘r’, and suddenly, from nowhere, the ghost of Mary Whitehouse rises in the machine. Rebellion! Prudery! And ‘bugges’! Predictive text cannot countenance and will not allow the existence of bugger, even though, unlike ‘bugges’, it is actually a word.

prudish mobile phone

It doesn’t stop there. I rarely wish to type ‘shiv’, and infrequently ‘dual’. ‘Yank’ is not a term I use often, either. And were I inclined to type something else, then to see ‘aunt’ come up is incongruous to say the least.

This odd primness on the part of mobile phone handsets is not the most serious of issues. In fact, if it is anything, it is mildly amusing. Another example: if you are married, as I am, to a woman called Abigail, and wish to refer to this fact by text, it will very nearly suggest ‘baggage’. Each time it does I don’t smile, because it isn’t that funny. But I do register a mild flicker of response to the drollery of the situation. It’s like having a Jeeves-esque butler who has a poor sense of humour. The phone coughs gently and makes its regular ‘witticism’, and I feel I need to acknowledge its efforts with a sort of grimace. Same as when I receive a comedy email: a baby/animal doing something faintly unusual on Youtube, say. I wince a little, politely, and move on.

However, underneath this bumbling-butler prudish facade, there is something faintly sinister and insidious about predictive text. We live in an age in which the mode of communication is changing. English used to be a language that was either spoken or hand-written. How much the process of hand-writing informed the process of speech is evident from the dialogue in 19th-century novels, assuming they are at all true to life. Hand-writing requires pauses. Thoughts must be shaped and honed into elegant clauses and elaborate substructures in advance. As is a truth commonly acknowledged, etc.

Now, though, we live in an age where English is either spoken or typed. Typing, as I am presently experiencing, requires no thought at all. Slap down the words like mortar and you have all the time in the world before it dries to rebuild the wall. Reorder, rejig, rework. And do that instead of thinking the thing through in advance.

Sometimes I think it would be interesting to see an article that includes all the deletions and re-writing. The hammer-hammer-hammer of the backspace key. Judging from what I am doing right now, typing with merrily inaccurate four-fingered enthusiasm, and hoovering up mistakes every few seconds, such an article would be long. Very, very long.

This phenomenon has yet, perhaps, to be studied properly – especially when it comes to writers. Drafts were once something over which future students could pore at length. Now no-one, not even the writer, really knows how many incarnations a sentence goes through, because it vanishes and reappears in the blink of an eye.

And this has a huge effect on speech, I think. Ask an English typist a question and I guarantee the response will be substantially different from an English hand-writer. The latter will pause. There will be more use of the pursed lips, as if she is savouring the taste of what she is about to say. The former will start speaking almost before you have finished, and produce a torrent of words out of which, doubtless, it will be possible to pick some sense; but among which it is not easy to relax and enjoy the mellifluity.

And predictive text? Where does that come in? My fear is, with the rise of all things Apple, which combines predictive text with a full keyboard, that it will become more and more prevalent. As we write, the machine will suggest what we wish to say. And doubtless it will nearly always be correct, our words will flow faster and with less conscious thought than ever before, and life will be yet more convenient. But sometimes it will be wrong. It won’t anticipate our thoughts, it will restrict them into the zone of the expected. Like search engines, it will suggest to us the words that most people use, not the one word after which we were groping.

And meanwhile we will need to pause less and less often to plan our utterances. Communication will become ever more a torrent, ever less a narrow and elegant winding stream. Speech will be digitised, a mass of content among which a user, not a listener, must pan for the occasional nuggets of gold. It is inevitable, I tell you.


Which means, of course, that it is not, unless you read the kind of newspaper that insists things are always worse than once they were. I’m sure that in fact our children will evolve English into something more sophisticated, more polished, more nimble than it has ever been, because I am mostly sure that while things might not always get better, they don’t generally tend to get worse and worse, either. I just hope that as English continues to grow and change, and as it changes from a cursive language into a key-stroked superlanguage, it doesn’t lose the richness and infinite variety that makes it such a pleasure to be around.


This blog will be published weekly or thereabouts. Explore the links above for more about Will le Fleming and his writing.

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Will le Fleming is a novelist. His debut, Central Reservation, is published by Xelsion and available now. Read more...

On a grey Thursday morning Holly lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, and wished her sister would die. Five hours later her wish came true. Read more...

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