by Sarah McCarthy
My thesaurus makes me laugh. Or rather, as it would have me say, it makes me “double up.” It starts out well enough—the first suggestion my built-in Microsoft Word thesaurus makes is usually a word that one might reasonably substitute.
From there, however, it gets a little more dicey, until the last suggestion is a word not even really related to the word in question—not even a distant cousin. Replacing your intended words with these last words will, almost without fail, make a nearly unreadable sentence. Thus, when bored (world-weary) by writing (putting pen to paper, carving) an essay (treatise), I can always (for ever and a day) turn to the thesaurus (word book) for help (good thing).
Truly, an absurdist drama could be constructed around its synonyms. Has anyone ever once said the word “annoying” when what he really meant was “spiky?” Or, a personal favorite, have you ever said that you were having “chicken” for dinner when what you really meant was that you were going to eat a “cock-a-doodle-do?” Why, I wonder, when it suggests those words does it not throw in, for example, wood-burning stove, watermelon, full-service gas station?
The thesaurus’ main goal, it would seem, particularly with adjectives, is to be a boundary-breaker—to push the description you desired further than you thought you could. I cannot call the idea that for any given word there are 200 others that mean the exact same thing merely “inaccurate.” It must be all wet, careless, counterfactual, defective, discrepant, doesn’t wash, fallacious. While I’m comfortable saying that, for its entertainment value, I “like” the thesaurus, I feel a little more wary saying that I “cotton to” or “dote on” it. Likewise, while I’ll happily say that the thesaurus is “fun” I’m not sure I want to go as far as it wants me to and call it as “a barrel of monkeys.”
The “Auto-Summarize” feature of Microsoft Word will likewise make you say things that you didn’t intend, though its uselessness far outstrips that of the thesaurus. The only feature of “Auto Summarize,” it would seem, would be to remind us that really, we needn’t be at all frightened of artificial intelligence.
Auto Summary claims that it “has examined the document and picked out sentences most relevant to the main theme.” It offers to either highlight those sentences or, more amusingly, “compose an executive abstract” for you at the top of the document. I decided to test it and gave it the sentences: I love cheese so much. Sometimes, though, I eat too much cheese. Then, I hate cheese.” From these it composed a declarative executive abstract that reads simply “I hate cheese.” I would sooner say “help” when I meant to say “good thing” than use the Auto Summarize feature.
Spell check, while by far the most useful feature of Microsoft Word, makes some amusing blunders. My grandparents live on “Peter Couts Drive,” though my spellchecker is so confident that what I meant was “Peter Coitus Drive” that it will change it automatically. It is well documented that you can write all sorts of wrong words that spell check will never get, and in their efforts to prove this, people who fancy themselves impossibly original and clever have written poems with titles like “Owed to a Spell Chequer.” The point of these poems is, of course, that you really ought to proofread, since spell check can’t catch it all—though, probably to the poet’s chagrin, my spell check does not recognize “Chequer” and suggests that I probably meant “Chaucer” instead.
Grammar check, though, is a pernicious device that is quick to scold me for writing “Me and Sarah goes to the store” but happy to edit it to “Sarah and me goes to the store,” a sentence that remains grammatically incorrect. Grammar check’s one real value is its “readability statistic” box, which, if you so choose, will tell you your ease-of-reading-statistic and what grade level your document aims for. This column received a 52.0 percent “reading ease” score and a 10.4 for grade level, which I presume means that it is optimally read by someone four-tenths done with tenth grade. My “I like cheese” document, I’m proud to say, was deemed 100% readable and appropriate for grades K and up, much better than the last sentence of “Ulysses” which received an un-impressive zero and was deemed appropriate for no grades at all.
What amazes me most is the amount of effort that went in to creating all of these features. Someone, or a team of people, worked very hard to create a grammar check that does not know grammar. Someone put a lot of effort into coming up with all those “similes” for the thesaurus, though why that is is a mystery or, as I perhaps should say, a Chinese puzzle, a cryptogram, a knotty question. Perhaps the function of all these features is to remind us daily of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Really, the only response we can have to the absurdities of Microsoft Word is to settle a pillow by our heads and say wearily, “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”