Helpful (But Unreliable) Software Tools

Oh, Microsoft, Apple and your ilk! You think you’re being helpful when you release new tools and updates, but you generally wreak more havoc than you bring clarity and certainty.

Herewith some views on some various writing ‘solutions’ (to use the lingo of Silicon Valley).

I am a terrible typist, so in some ways a feature that automatically corrects obvious typos is a blessing.

But also a curse. The auto-correct feature that you get with the standard Microsoft products was not devised by lawyers, nor is it set up to work in a Canadian setting. It can also defy common sense and good English.

Microsoft Word thinks that tortious (relating to a civil wrong) must be tortuous (twisty), dislikes honour, offence and the like, assumes I mean paragraph © not paragraph (c), and insists I want 5th when I actually want 5th (the superscript is incorrect in legal citations, by the bye).

You can reset the language from US English to Canadian (or Caribbean, or Australian, or UK…) English, but that’s a bit fiddly to do – and what dictionaries are they relying on? If the word ‘Oxford’ isn’t in the title, it’s not a proper dictionary, to my mind.

The auto-correct feature that comes with Apple’s version of Microsoft is even more aggressive. And texting is worse: no wonder there is a website dedicated to frustrating (and funny) iPhone auto-correct failures.

How many times have you sent an e-mail to the wrong person because some other name was automatically pulled out of your contacts or your list of previous recipients?

Often this isn’t really an issue (although your mother may wonder why you’re asking her to join the gang for drinks on Friday night), but if you’re a lawyer it can be very scary indeed.

Many a privileged e-mail has wound up with the wrong party as a result of the auto-fill feature, and that is clearly A Bad Thing.

Same comments as for auto-correct. No, I don’t mean cheese when I type cheque

In a legal document, you’ll end up with lots of wavy lines under technical terms or regional spellings which Word just doesn’t recognise. And your humble scribe hasn’t managed to figure out how to add a (correct) spelling to spell-check’s dictionary.

Use this feature with caution – it’s never a substitute for printing off a hard copy and doing some proper proofreading.

Microsoft Word Proofing
This is a bit buried. Go to the Review tab in the top toolbar in Microsoft Word, then Review > Language > Language Preferences > Proofing.

You’ll get a menu that allows you to select your auto-correct options (you can turn off the automatic correction of (c) to ©, for example).

You can also run a check of grammatical and stylistic problems or errors, including misused words, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, clichés, colloquialisms, gender-specific language, passive constructions, unclear phrasing and overly long sentences.

Another option is to get readability statistics – and I bet you most lawyers will get high scores for the number of passive constructions (which isn’t good).

A lot of subjectivity there, but at least you can accept or reject the suggested changes. It’s doubtful that the software is attuned to legal terminology, but it may help you avoid some obvious problems.

This one isn’t free, but it may also be helpful. WordRake says it ‘tightens, tones, and clarifies your writing’ (like calisthenics for prose?), aiming for both ‘clarity and brevity’. By clicking  ‘the “rake” button … the in-line editor ripple[s] through your document, suggesting edits to remove clutter and improve unclear phrasing, just like a live editor.’

Sounds great! In a recent demo with a real lawyer’s document, WordRake picked up a lot of boring, passive constructions and suggested more concise alternatives to verbose phrasing. But it failed to pick up the (ghastly) facilitative and didn’t always handle idioms well. It won’t catch grammar and spelling errors.

Like all the other tools, helpful as far as it goes, but unreliable.

Next time: noun-fatigue

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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