Computers Don't Get It's

A LOT of people, myself included, once thought that the Great Communicator of the late 20th century was that beige box that dominates so many of our desks.

The personal computer could manipulate numbers, words, and thoughts in ways unimagined. There was one hitch: If we wanted to share in all this intellectual largess, we would have to learn the computer's ways. We'd have to become "computer literate."

It was a difficult undertaking, but the rewards were great: Our new literacy would create a splendid new world of communication. We owned the greatest invention since the printing press.

It hasn't quite turned out that way. Any assessment of the past decade must conclude that literacy has been the net loser in this deal. Communication, yes: I sat at my desk in tidewater Maryland one recent night and logged on to an electronic bulletin board in California that produced bushels of information on the forthcoming Earth Summit in Rio; on environmentalism in Canada and Australia; on a sarcastic memo about developing countries that a World Bank official wishes he'd never written. That took 20 m inutes and 53 seconds (the beige box is very good at keeping track of such things), and it cost me $5.83, with most going to the phone company.

But literacy? Sadly, no. Unfortunately, what we have learned about literacy from the beige box is that when everybody becomes a communicator, we get some pretty awful communications. Some cases in point:

* It's no longer embarrassing to misspell words or to commit grammatical errors. Whenever I do it, I am visited with the memory of Mr. Smith, a high school English teacher whose eyes turned into laser beams if I slipped an its in for an it's or a between for among. Not only are such mistakes now commonplace; there's no guilt.

The main culprit, of course, is our education system, but computer software runs a close second. A chief felon is the spelling checker that accompanies many writing programs. It cares not a whit about the difference between it's and its. Nor does it concern itself with commas, which computer illiterates sprinkle like salt on their prose. Yet people rely on it to "correct" their writing.

THERE are also programs on the market that purport to be grammar checkers. I love reading their advertisements in computer magazines. I've got one from Grammatik III ("Powerful Writing Improvement") that reproduces a memo and challenges the reader to find 25 "problems" with the writing. I found 32, and I'll bet Mr. Smith would find 40.

* "Usage" has always been the lexicographers' alibi for bestowing legitimacy on words that have shifted meaning in popular use. Hopefully, for example. Only a few years ago, a lot of people thought someone who used hopefully was a dunce.

Today almost everybody uses it: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate snorts at "the irrationally large amount of critical fire" the word draws from purists, of whom I am one. The computer, by spreading incorrect language faster and wider than any printing press, shares guilt with the broadcast media for dramatically collapsing the time between a word's being misused and its becoming "usage."

* The computer's most vicious assault on the language comes through the manuals that accompany software. I use two marvelous lesser-known software programs. AskSam stores, finds, and sorts all sorts of textual information in a flash, and MaxThink is a beautiful device for jotting down thoughts, arranging them into often coherent order, and producing outlines. Their manuals are brimming with grammatical, spelling, syntactical, and most other sorts of errors. The manual for AskSam's current version was so full of mistakes that the company had to publish a new edition. MaxThink, which bills itself as a "thought processor," has the most disorganized, poorly edited manual I have yet seen.

* The beige printing press has lowered standards in another important area of publishing: the index. A well-done book index tries to anticipate the puzzled reader's needs. A useless index, which is now the norm, can be achieved with many popular word processing programs. Far too many publications these days show the unmistakable stains of computer indexing: All the "important" words were tagged and then assembled into a stark, unhelpful, alphabetical list.

And the situation is worsening by the minute and the megabyte. Which leads me to a final admission. (Mr. Smith would pickle my hide for that incomplete sentence.) I am violating the Writers' Code when I say this: Writers need editors. No writer, be he Norman Mailer or the volunteer who puts out the PTA newsletter, should be able to hand his or her own work directly to the printer without having someone assess it. Writers are for gathering (or manufacturing) and setting down information, and editors are f or politely fixing the betweens and amongs and the it'ses and itses and gently suggesting that perhaps this or that passage is totally off the wall. Nobody, even in this great age of communication, should be allowed to give the final OK on their own writing. There is maybe one error in this piece of writing. See if you can find it.

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