Auto-correct: Your silent partner in texting blunders

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ Junne Webb recently texted a friend to say, "I like fried children." Ernesto Hernandez texted his friend, "Is your sister busty?" Jed Rapp Goldstein very nearly called his co-workers "Visigoths" in a post to Twitter. The silent...

SAN JOSE, Calif. _ Junne Webb recently texted a friend to say, "I like fried children."

Ernesto Hernandez texted his friend, "Is your sister busty?"

Jed Rapp Goldstein very nearly called his co-workers "Visigoths" in a post to Twitter.

The silent co-author of these blunders - as anyone who has ever typed on a tiny touch screen can attest - is a mobile phone's auto-correct function.

A technology designed to fix our sloppy typing, auto-correct software nonetheless can create garbled, mortifying or unintentionally hilarious messages that people often send before noticing they didn't write quite what they intended. And because of the sheer volume of messages people send from their phones these days, auto-correct mistakes have become a pop culture phenomenon unto themselves.


"It just happens so often. Text culture is to send first, ask questions later," said Goldstein, who works for an educational consulting business in Berkeley, Calif.

Auto-correct software is what quickly substitutes the word "the" if you have accidentally typed "thw" on your phone's touch screen, for example. Typically, the software gives you the option of keeping your funky spelling. You can also disable auto-correct. But most people do not, so when they quickly and inaccurately poke away at their touch screens, the software often pops in unwanted words.

That's how you might wind up texting your spouse that you'll pick up the kids "on the rathole" instead of "on the way home," for example. That's how scores of San Francisco Giants fans sent texts about the feats of "Juan urine" last fall, when they meant slugger Juan Uribe (now with the L.A. Dodgers).

The pervasive phenomenon has given rise to sites like and, which corral people's most embarrassing and silly auto-correct malapropisms, some of which are so comical that first-time visitors frequently gasp for air as they read.

"We're all talking so fast and communicating so fast that these things are bound to happen," said Connecticut resident Jillian Madison, who launched DamnYouAutoCorrect in October 2010 after she texted a couple of friends to invite them over for movies and gelato _ but when she misspelled "gelato" as "gellato," her iPhone auto-corrected her with a word, typically not printed in the newspaper, that describes a sex act. (Go ahead and type it on your iPhone. We'll wait.)

These days, Madison gets about 600 submissions a day to DamnYouAutoCorrect, the majority from iPhone users, she says.

Those who haven't written any legitimately twisted texts recently and want to gin up fake ones to submit to Madison or can visit The site will generate a simulated screen shot of a text-message conversation that you can type in yourself. But Madison says she is pretty good at sniffing out the fakes, and won't put them on her site, no matter how funny.

Laugh-out-loud-worthy auto-corrections didn't happen as often when most texting was done on keypads with real buttons instead of on touch-screen keyboards, said Lex Friedman, a staff writer for San Francisco-based Macworld magazine who describes himself as "obsessed with auto-correct."


"The complete lack of any kind of tactile feedback makes typing harder. I think that's when auto-correct became a necessity," he says.

None of the companies behind the major mobile phone platforms - iPhone, Android or BlackBerry - would comment on the nuts and bolts of who programs their auto-correct software and how it works exactly.

But Friedman estimates that the iPhone's auto-correct, for example, contains a dictionary of 40,000 to 60,000 words. The software is designed to "learn" the words that a user types most often, he says. So if you type a particular name or slang word frequently, the phone will eventually stop trying to change it.

Of course, it may take a while, as Simone Francese, of San Bruno, Calif., found with her iPhone. She would try to type "byeeee" and get "busses."

"I try to type how I talk, and I don't go 'bye,' I go 'byeeee,' " she said. Eventually the phone got it.

To avoid sending potentially embarrassing or confusing auto-correction errors, experts advise that mobile typists take the old-fashioned step of - gasp! - checking their work.

Goldstein actually caught the error in his Twitter post, going back to delete "Visigoths" and type "co-workers," the word he really wanted.

"Visigoths" and "co-workers" bear little resemblance, though some of their letters are adjacent on the keyboard. But it's the kind of substitution that makes one wonder if a team of software programmers holed up in a loft somewhere were cackling madly as they planned some of the more confounding word swaps.


Some auto-correct substitutions are more transparent. Webb, a San Jose native now living near Tracy, Calif., slipped up when she attempted to convey her fondness for fried chicken, not children.

And of course Hernandez, a 26-year-old San Francisco resident, didn't see the error in his text until it was too late: He meant to ask his friend if his sister was busy, not busty.

"That was kind of awkward," he said.

Hernandez said he tends to type pretty fast when he's messaging his buddies. "I'm more mindful when I'm writing to someone I work with, or my boss," he says. "I might actually go back and proofread it before I send it."


(c) 2011, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
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