THE MICROSOFT EFFECT.

That is what Dr. Boli has decided to call the algorithmic bureaucratization of language, as promoted by Microsoft Word. Dr. Boli does not use Word very often, because there are at least half a dozen word processors he likes better. But it is the standard, and Word seems to have a very simple mathematical algorithm that suggests “more concise language” by comparing its dictionary of common phrases.

“But first we have to take care of a few things…”

“Have to” should be “must,” says Word, because “More concise language would be clearer for your reader.” “Have to” is two words; “must” is one. 1 < 2.

“In spite of his natural reluctance to…”

“In spite of” should be “despite,” because “More concise language would be clearer for your reader.” 1 < 3.

The effect of these and similar changes is to make the language sound more bureaucratic, even though the intention was certainly the reverse. The office drone who expresses himself in natural American English because he wants to get the writing out of the way as quickly as possible is pushed toward formalistic vocabulary that makes him sound less like a living human being and more like all the other Word users in the English-speaking world. Since most writing for publication (as memos, as academic articles, as textbooks, as court opinions) is still done in Microsoft Word, and since every Word user who has not specifically dismissed them will get these suggestions, they must have a significant effect on our language.

Dr. Boli’s readers, as a class, are probably little influenced by the Microsoft Effect. He has noticed that his readers have strong opinions on language (frequently they even disagree with Dr. Boli!), so they are not likely to be bullied by mere software. But the average secretary or temporary receptionist who has to write a memo (“has to” should be replaced with “must,” Microsoft suggests) is going to take these suggestions seriously. Microsoft wouldn’t say these things if they weren’t true, right?

There is good news, however. Google Docs will probably replace Microsoft Word as the dominant word processor in a few years. That means we all have to (“must”) adapt to Google’s prejudices, correcting “all right” to “alright” and so on. But they will be different prejudices.

Comments

  1. Richard A says:

    I haven’t noticed, does Word force “use” instead of “utilize”? That would be benefit.
    I have noticed, though, that in any formatting, MS Word knows he knows better than I what I want. The wrestling match does get tiresome after a while.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Here is how much we are dedicated to reader service! We tried the experiment for you with this sentence:

      We have to utilize more concise language in our documents.

      Microsoft Word suggests changing it to this:

      We must utilize more concise language in our documents.

      As for the formatting, much of the fun of using a modern word processor is learning to fool it into doing what you want it to do. But, yes, there is such a thing as too much fun. Any designer will tell you that content should be separated from presentation, so that the design can be changed without editing the whole document. After a while, Dr. Boli found that drafting in Markdown made the separation of content from presentation easy.

      There may be material for a whole essay on the subject of fooling word processors into doing what we want them to do.

  2. KevinT says:

    This humble reader recalls fondly his experience using Volkswriter on an IBM PC and not so fondly his experience using the word processor on a Wang minicomputer. But methinks that the good Doctor is probably of a less-advanced age than this reader.

    As best as I can recall, neither of those programs suggested much, if any, grammar “improvements”.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      The first word processor Dr. Boli used regularly was AtariWriter on an Atari 800. It made no suggestions about grammar.

      He soon replaced it with the much more capable Textpro on the same machine. But Textpro also was a word processor without opinions.

      It is possible to tell Word not to have opinions. The easiest way to accomplish that is by switching to LibreOffice.

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