Word selection: longing for truly multilingual word processing and text editing tools

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
December 2nd, 2003 • 1:21 am

I have talked about how Microsoft Word’s multilingual capabilities are often more of a façade than anything else. But in truth this is a more general problem in modern computing.

For example, one of the most fundamental behaviours on the Mac when working with text is that you can select a word by double-clicking anywhere on it. This works pretty much everywhere there is text that can be edited or even simply selected: in the Finder, in Mail, in Word, in Safari, etc.

(You would be surprised by the number of computer users who do not even know this. Go ahead, ask around. And then you’ll also be surprised by the number of computer users who are told that they can do this and still persist in not using it — simply because for years they have always selected words “manually” by clicking at the beginning of a word and dragging their mouse to the end of the word. It’s much less efficient, but it’s become an ingrained habit and they just cannot lose the habit.)

Now, the problem I have with this double-clicking behaviour is that the definition of what constitutes a word is most often not based on language, but on basic computer typography. To a computer, a word is delimited by space characters or punctuation signs such as the period, colon, semi-colon, or comma.

This works OK in most situations in English. But it ignores the existence of a basic morphological phenomenon known as contraction. Contraction happens when two consecutive words are shortened by dropping some letters and using an apostrophe instead. Examples of contraction in English include: you’ve, it’s, I’m, etc.

The problem is that there are languages other than English where contractions are far more prevalent. French is one such language. The definite article le becomes l’, the preposition de becomes d’, the conjunction que becomes qu’, etc. These are used to form contracted phrases as in l’arbre, parce qu’il, bonnet d’âne, etc.

In all these cases, we have phrases that look like they consist of a single word, but are actually two words. When editing such phrases, one often needs to select one of the two words and not both. Yet double-clicking on one of these words usually causes the computer to select the entire contracted form, because, unlike other punctuation marks, the apostrophe doesn’t qualify as a word delimiter.

Why is that? Who decided that, when people double-click on a word in a contracted form, usually they want to select the entire contracted form and not the word that they are double-clicking on?

I am afraid this decision was made by a computer engineer and not by a linguist. Because I am pretty sure that a scientific study of people’s text editing habits would show that, most of the time, when they double-click on a word in a contracted form, they mean to select the word, and not the entire contracted form.

Of course, I have not conducted such a study. This is based on my own personal experience — mostly when typing in French. But the bottom-line here is that this doesn’t even seem to be an issue. Nobody seems to care. No software application gives you the option, as a preference setting, to treat the apostrophe as a word delimiter.

So far, the only software title that I have found where some thought appears to have been put into the issue is Bare Bones Software’s BBEdit. In BBEdit, whether you are typing in English or in French or in any other language, the apostrophe is considered a word delimiter. Bare Bones doesn’t give you the option to change the behaviour, but at least the preferable behaviour is the default.

But it’s an exception. The option to treat the apostrophe as a word delimiter should be a system-wide preference. The fact that it isn’t confirms two things: that computer writing tools are still, by and large, designed by engineers and not by linguists; and that problems that are more acute in languages other than English tend to be ignored.

I really wish that Apple’s legendary attention to detail would extend to language issues as well.

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