We Got a Bunch of People to Turn Off Autocorrect for a Week. Here’s What Happened.

Language and how we use it.
July 1 2014 2:33 PM

Is It Time to Kill Autocorrect?

What happens when you get a bunch of people to turn off autocorrect for a week. 

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Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

If you use a phone to send text messages, chances are you’ve been burned by autocorrect at some point. You’ve typed messages to friends or co-workers wherein “meeting” morphed into “mating,” or the phone changed “Trish” to “trash” without you noticing—making you appear ridiculous, incompetent, or drunk. We’ve all been there.

A quick perusal of Twitter on a few recent weekday afternoons showed that someone tweets “stupid autocorrect” or “fucking autocorrect” approximately once every 65 seconds. And seemingly everyone has a story about bizarre or problematic “corrections”—“arguments” becoming “argue menus,” “hiney” taking the place of “honey,” and so on. The iPhone transforms “Steve Buscemi” into “Steve bus emu.” And autocorrect loves changing sentences to include “ducking.” It’s the ducking worst!

All phone models are different, and “autocorrect” has become a shorthand for several distinct functions. But when we bemoan these messaging misadventures we’re most commonly referring to a cellphone feature formally known as “auto-correction,” “word prediction,” or some similar title, depending on the make and model of your phone.

My cellphone, an HTC One, is, as far as I can tell, especially awful when it comes to stupid autocorrections. A few weeks ago, after sending some garbled thing to my wife about “alligator helmets,” I reached a turning point. The un-autocorrected texts I sent in the past from a different, less-smart phone sometimes included spelling mistakes and punctuation snafus, but they were nonetheless comprehensible. Perhaps, on a particularly harried day, I wrote, say, “Im heading ou now. Should be ther in a half hour.” Those sorts of mistakes were not communication deal breakers. But with autocorrect, that’s not always the case. I recently asked someone if he was having a good time on vacation by texting “arm you having funk?” My phone’s autocorrect seemed to be doing more harm than good. I’d had enough.  

But if I was going to propose that we kill autocorrect, I wanted to be responsible about it. If we all turned it off for good, I asked myself, what would we be forsaking? For starters, we’d lose the opportunity to make all sorts of clever jokes to our friends about autocorrect-related texting mix-ups. That would be a bummer. We also wouldn’t be able to use the function as a way to escape accountability for weird spelling mistakes or embarrassing typos. And it does at least appear to help us type faster on our tiny keyboards. Was I overreacting? Maybe my phone is unusually terrible? What if some people actually like autocorrect?

With all that in mind, I decided to run a test. I asked some friends and family members to participate in a one-week experiment involving life without cellphone autocorrect. A few Slate staffers took part as well. Altogether, eight of us switched off the autocorrect function and proceeded to write and send messages without it. Five participants used iPhones, one used a Samsung Galaxy S3, I used the HTC phone, and another person used a Droid Razr. No one ran into any major issues figuring out how to turn off autocorrect, and we left the spellcheck on, so we’d still be able to see spelling errors and correct them manually if we so desired.

Raring to go, I sent my first post-autocorrect text to my wife informing her of the experiment. It took a tad longer than normal, and I mistyped a few words on my initial pass, but the phone underlined those errors in red, and I quickly fixed them. In her texted response, my wife noted that her phone mistakenly tried to change some of the words that she included in her message. Much to my delight, she said that she, too, had an F-word-level enmity for her phone’s autocorrect function. She happily agreed to partake in the test as well. Things were off to a flying start!

That was on a Wednesday. My wife works in health care, and she sends a lot of text messages—most of which are work related, and some of which are pretty important. On Thursday afternoon, I received the following text from her: “This friggin experiment of yours with the deactivating autofill/correct is the worse. It’s literally adding significant tome to my getting emails and texts out. As you cam see, I’m not bothering to correct words, after multiple tries.”

Around the same time, I began hearing some grumbling from other participants. “Already thinking that i prefer it the other way,” a friend texted me that night. Another person seemed to foreshadow the possibility of an abrupt pullout: “Soooo i don’t think im liking NOT having auto correct on ... I’ll see how long i can last.”

I began to worry that the experiment would collapse. But I’m happy to report that everyone made it through the week without reverting to autocorrect. As part of a post-experiment follow-up, all participants stated that the test period presented them with more than enough time to fully comprehend the differences between texting one way as opposed to the other. And when it was all over, a majority confessed to being surprised—in one way or another—about what they had learned.

One friend assumed texting would go more smoothly without autocorrect inserting weird mistakes. Almost immediately, he came to realize otherwise. “I found that I missed all the ‘correct’ autocorrect functionality,” he says. “I have fat fingers and always struggle with typing accurately on my phone keyboard, so I had to do a lot more deleting and retyping.” Typing contractions, he adds, was unusually annoying. “Without autocorrect, I had to switch keyboard views to manually type the apostrophe, and then switch back to continue with the next letter. It was a big pain. After a few days, I gave up on trying to correctly type words with apostrophes, and sent a bunch of texts with ‘Im,’ ‘cant,’ and ‘dont’ in them.” Three others mentioned being annoyed by the same issue.  

For many participants, messages took longer to type, senders had to go back and address errors more often, and the process just seemed more cumbersome overall. Several people said they felt as though they had to pay much closer attention while texting in order to send non-garbled messages.

Slate business writer Alison Griswold noted that she would’ve gone back to autocorrect after just one day, but for the experiment. “There were probably certain autocorrect mistakes I didn’t miss while it was off, but I think they were few and far between compared to the number of times I’ve manually capitalized and contracted words, not to mention fixed my own typos,” Griswold says. “An experiment like this really makes you appreciate autocorrect.”  

But not everyone was pining for a return to auto-assisted texting. Slate science writing fellow Jane Hu, while confessing that she did miss her phone’s propensity to change her mother-in-law’s name from “Patty” to “party,” noted that, overall, life without autocorrect wasn’t so bad. “I think I overestimated how much I actually rely on autocorrect to complete or correct words for me,” she says. “I was surprised to find that I ended up going back to change words in my texts less than I did with autocorrect on.” (Hu did add that things may be a bit different after a few drinks: “I’m guessing autocorrect is pretty vital to drunk texting.”)

As for me? I’m with Jane. I loved the new approach to texting. I appreciated that, instead of my phone dropping out-of-context words into my messages without me realizing it, the device just showed me my spelling mistakes and let me decide whether to fix them. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t, depending on the recipient. I felt much more secure in knowing that what I typed and sent was actually what I meant. And while it did take a bit longer to compose messages, the difference was not so great that it became a huge burden. (As an ancillary experiment, I typed identical 15-word texts several times using each method. On average, the non-autocorrect version took three seconds longer to produce an error-free message, but I didn’t have to worry about any weird, surreptitious word replacements. For a 100-word text, the difference was eight seconds. Still not bad, though if your job demands superfast texts then maybe it’s significant.)

Whether moving away from cellphone autocorrect is the right move for you will depend on how adept you are at using very small keys to type, how wonky your phone’s autocorrect function is, whether you text in the traditional way or use the Swype method, how fast-paced your life and job are—and a host of other factors, including how often you find yourself intoxicated or overly tired. If you don’t mind fixing typos manually—or if spelling and punctuation errors that still allow for basic comprehension just don’t bother you—and you hate accidentally sending messages to your boss asking if she’s ready for the “mating with clients,” then you might want to give life without autocorrect a shot. I know I will never go back to the old way. I’m happy to captain Team Kill Autocorrect.

But I was clearly in the minority following that one-week experiment. Among the others, only Jane decided to give up autocorrect permanently. For the rest, a mostly accurate typing tool that helps one finish and send messages faster is preferable to a more user-controlled input method that makes one work a bit harder, even if the end result means dealing with the occasional embarrassing mistake.    

On a recent Saturday, midway through the autocorrect experiment, as I was doing some research for this story while lounging on the back patio at the in-laws’, my wife looked at me from across the table and asked what I was working on. She was sipping iced tea, and when I told her, her face scrunched up as if she were sampling the sourest of all beverages. She began shaking her head in the manner of someone experiencing severe stomach pain. “I cannot wait until Wednesday!” she said loudly, now smiling but still shaking her head. “That way I can turn the autocorrect back on.” 

Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.