Gelatinizing the problem

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Working on a paper today, my partner Barbara found that Microsoft Word objected to her use of the word relativizing as nonexistent or misspelled, and suggested firmly that she should change it to the most plausible nearly similar word: gelatinizing. But she is wise to the extraordinarily bad advice Word gives on spelling and grammar, and firmly resisted what could have been one of the worst cupertinos in the history of philosophy.


  1. Ben said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    In the input box I'm typing in, using Firefox with its default dictionary, relativizing also shows up with red squigglies under it.

    Anyway, I wasn't sure if that term just meant "to make relative" as its structure would suggest, or if it meant something with a slightly different meaning, so I decided to look it up. It did indeed have that definition (without further nuances), but I was also amused to see this secondary definition:

    [ˈrɛlətɪvaɪz] vb (tr) to apply the theory of relativity to

    So I guess if you have a physics problem whose Newtonian solution does not match experimental results, you want might to relativize it.

  2. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    For physicists: to apply the theory of relativity to, or construe in terms of the theory of relativity. For philosophers: construe as being relative to something else that may vary, as when it is claimed that a moral judgment might be relativized to the cultural context and thus hold for some people or cultures but not for others — the mushy I'm-OK-you're-OK position (extremely fashionable among modern educators but despised by most philosophers) that is called relativism. For linguists: to form a relative clause, as when we say that the man who I met __ involves relativizing on the direct object (because it's the direct object that's missing from its typical location — where I put the dash) and the man who I talked to __ involves relativizing on the object of a preposition (because it's the object we'd normally have after to that's missing from its expected location). It's surprising to find the verb stem relativize or any of its derivatives missing from any contemporary dictionary.

  3. Nick Lamb said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    It might be interesting, in this modern age where it's normal for software to (volunteer to) send feedback to its makers over the Internet, to allow Firefox, or indeed OS-wide spelling databases, to aggregate the personal dictionaries of users and use a trivial algorithm to put the top N most popular before humans for further deliberation.

    Given the enthusiasm for "new word" stories in the popular media this might even be justified by publicity opportunities. "Tigergate beats Catassery in Firefox poll of new words" gets you a few column inches at the same time as some volunteer editor is trying to figure out whether "Catassery" is a real-enough word to add to a web browser spelling checker.

  4. Frances said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:44 am

    That explains why one of my students kept talking about gelatinization in an assignment about relative clauses.

  5. Army1987 said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    My browser's spellchecker flags "relativizing", too. But while posting a comment on John Wells' blog, I found out that it doesn't flag "unflappable". (But then, despite it's set to en_GB, it flags "arsed" and doesn't flag "helluva".) Hey, I've just realized it flags "blog"! Go figure…

  6. Army1987 said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    I've read about an Italian teacher considering "condizionabile" incorrect because it's not on the dictionary, despite it being a straightforward compound of the verb "condiziona(re)" and the suffix "-bile". I guess most Italians would be surprised to find out that it's "not a word".

  7. Steve Harris said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    The case of the human cupertino:

    A medical researcher just told me the story of reading a patient's charts (which is supposed to consist of medically relevant data) and coming across the interesting observation that the patient, an elderly man, was a "roller-coaster rider". The researcher mentioned this tidbit to the patient and found that he was nothing of the sort: rather, he was a holocaust survivor.

    A cupertino in the preparation of the charts? Something like that, perhaps: It seems that the doctor who had taken the patient's information had recorded hand-written notes by voice, relying upon a human transcriber to enter them into the patient's file. It would be interesting to try to track down the doctor for rhoticism.

  8. mollymooly said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    allow Firefox, or indeed OS-wide spelling databases, to aggregate the personal dictionaries of users

    Please, no! Every suggested replacement will be refinanced canadian viagra.

  9. mollymooly said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    allow Firefox, or indeed OS-wide spelling databases, to aggregate the personal dictionaries of users

    Please, no! Every suggested replacement will be spam, and misspelled spam with inventive use of diacritics at that.

  10. mollymooly said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    so blockwords can be moderated in, eh? Good to know.

  11. Simon Spero said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    The default dictionary on MacOS has relativize, so this is not a cupertino from Cupertino.

    Just as a matter of curiosity; does Barbara's word processor accept relativise and relativising. I'd be careful; if there is a plan underway to dismiss all foreign-born linguists* from British Universities, she's a prime target for the nativists.

    *More on King's College London's War on Logic here

    [(amz) My Mac, not many miles from Cupertino, rejects all of: relativize, relativise, relativizing, relativising.]

  12. mike said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:45 pm

    I just don't understand why it's considered so obvious that Word hands out "extraordinarily bad advice" on spelling and grammar. Two points:

    1) As noted by other examples in the comments, "relativizing" is not in the default dictionary of more than one spelling database. How common a word is this? Is it likely to be a word that the majority of the user base for Word is likely to try to write? What should the criterion be for deciding that a string constitutes a legitimate yet extraordinarily obscure word, versus …

    2) How much likelier is it that "relativizing" is a misspelling? (Of what, I don't know, but we do know that bad spellers have extraordinarily bad abilities to get words wrong.)

    If "relativizing" shows up a lot _in your own work_, there's an extraordinarily easy fix for this problem, which is to click the extraordinarily obvious "Add to Dictionary" button in the spell check dialog box. After which you will never get this extraordinarily bad advice from Word ever again. Problem solved. Linguists left to find other ways in which Word sucks.

    I suppose another point here, while I'm about it, is that this constitutes _yet another example_ of making extraordinarily sweeping generalizations (extraordinarily negative ones) about the capabilities of Word based on a few extraordinarily isolated examples of where a tool — and it is just a dumb ol' piece of software — did the wrong thing. What percentage of the time is Word correct when it flags a misspelling? How useful is that to people?

    [I'll just say one brief thing to Mike, and avoid the temptation to write several thousand words of rant: my judgment that Word is a horrible clunker of a program is not "based on a few extraordinarily isolated examples". It is founded on experience with half a dozen different editors and word processors over thirty years of writing and publishing millions and millions of words. The suboptimal spell-checking is the least of it. Word is appallingly slow; it comes set with default auto-correction routines that in the end have to be turned off because they cause constant trouble (you type "(a), (b), (c)" and out comes "(a), (b), ©"); it makes crazy assumptions about how font choice and cutting and pasting should work; it control-freaks your formatting (I have watched experienced secretaries delete whole paragraphs and retype them simply because they couldn't for the life of them find any way to kill the indenting that Word had suddenly decided to impose); it often cannot be customized to behave sensibly. Its stupid grammar-checking brings Strunk & White back from the grave: it flags every passive, every which that looks as if it might begin an integrated relative clause (it's often wrong about that), every sequence of preposition phrases, every instance of verb agreement where it can't correctly identify the subject, and all sorts of other nonsense. I hate Word, I despise it, and yet I am forced to use it. Every day, because I have an administrative position in a university where all the support staff use the damn thing, I have to waste precious minutes of my life opening Word files and dickering with the repellent program to modify them. It makes me retch, and I would just like to be given permission, if that's all right, Mike, to hate and despise this piece of junk. I don't want your snippy rhetorical questions about quantitative confirmation of its spell-checking inadequacies based on verified word frequencies. I want validation. I want succor. I want sympathy. I want caring and healing. I've had to do five administrative documents using Word today, and it's been a long, hard slog. Give me a break. (Sniff.) —GKP] (I know that seemed rather long for a brief thing, but it was just 360 words. Not including the sniff. A sniff doesn't count as a word. Because I say it doesn't. Nor does this bit.)

  13. Zubon said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    Steve Harris reminds me of a favorite spell-correction story:

    My wife's company once sent out a proposal that included a statement that a team of African Americans would construct a scaffold.

    The client asked, quite reasonably, why African Americans?

    After some checking, the problem was traced to a typo in the word "riggers," and a proof-reader who made an executive decision.

    I presume the "typo" came from transcribing someone's hand-writing.

    The post where the comment appears is another gem, from a news source that used Find and Replace with "homosexual" and "gay," not noticing that the sports story in question included someone by the name Gay. Hilarity ensued.

  14. Stephen Jones said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    The Word spellchecker is quite good compared to Open Source alternatives.

    Geoff foams at the mouth when he hears the word 'Microsoft'. He moved back to the UK so the NHS would be able to pay for the medical treatment for the syndrome.

    Word has various controversial decisions in its automatic formatting decisions. Nevertheless the time wasted when they go wrong is considerable.

    The basic problem goes back to the time when they tried to impose a powerful style-based word processor on the previous WSIWYG interface. The basic trick is to tell it not to format or auto-correct anything unless you tell it to.

  15. MikeyC said,

    February 13, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    Office 2010 (beta) doesn't mark it as incorrect.

  16. Frans said,

    February 14, 2010 @ 7:00 am

    @Stephen: Which open-source alternatives? Writer would be the most widely used I imagine, and after disabling a few annoying defaults (no different than Word there) you'll find it works much better than Word for anything longer than, say, 5 pages. It doesn't make up its own styles and decides to apply them at random, it doesn't mess up numbering of pictures or tables, it doesn't mess up the bibliographic database, etc. etc. The only shortcoming I've found compared to Word is its track changes feature, but you seldom come across someone who knows how to use that properly anyway.

    A more interesting comparison might be Wordperfect 6, but I'm not really familiar with that.

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