Monday, August 14, 2023

Grammar for Computer Engineers

Annamaria on Monday

Dear dictation app creators,

A couple of years ago or so, I began using the product you produce and found its "functionality” inadequate.  (An aside: I am sorry to say that to me the very word "functionality" sets my teeth on edge.  It sounds like the name of a skin disease.)  Be that as it may, if you desire you read about the issues I had with the usefulness of your work, you can find that previous blog post here.

I must say that I am impressed with the improved (ahem) functionality of dictation software.  And I have gotten used to speaking in a way - word by word - that makes it more likely that what your software produces is actually what I am trying to say.  For instance, a British character in my story said, "I shall act..."  Before  I   learned  to dictate more slowly,  that phrase came out, "I shellacked."  Even a slight pause on my part avoids such mistakes, which frankly brought to my mind images of a DIY-crazed twenty-something man (software engineer) lost in Home Depot.

On the other hand, the "improved" latest incarnation is forcing new mistakes on its users when it comes to punctuation.  As the user dictates along, the latest and not the greatest versions stick in punctuation marks at will.  The worst of these is that it puts in a comma whenever the person dictating pauses.

"Isn't that the rule for commas," you ask?  Well, no.   

 Commas are not meant to  be sprinkled into text like salt and pepper on your soup;  There are rules. 


Commas have quite a few uses in English. Here are some of the more common ones.


  • Separating items in a list of three or more
  • Connecting two independent clauses with a conjunction
  • Setting apart clauses
  • Setting apart introductory phrases
  • Setting apart interrupters and parenthetical elements
  • Setting apart names in direct address
  • Separating parts of a date
  • Separating parts of a location, like a city and its country
  • Separating multiple coordinating adjectives
  • Separating quotations and attributive tags (As in the example about that started with "Isn't that...

As part of my Catholic school education, I was actually taught this stuff in the fourth grade.  I don't imagine that most people in the tech world have the time or the motivation to study such arcane issues as the parts of speech and the actual rules for how to punctuate what you write.  However, I urge you, just this once, to peruse the list above and take notice that nowhere in the list do you see that a comma should go in when there is a pause.  


Yet, you are producing apps that put in a comma whenever the person dictating pauses for a breath.  There is a book that famously illustrates how such misplacements can actually change the whole meaning of the sentence.


“Eats shoots and leaves” is very different from “Eats, shoots, and leaves.”


Famously, there is an ambiguous comma in the second amendment to the US Constitution, the one on the right to bear arms.  The reason it was put there has been debated for decades and has lead to one of the most contentious situations in the country. If you want to learn more about that, you can find the many sides of the arguments here.

In the meanwhile, PLEASE fix the dictation software so that it does not drop commas into the resultant texts willy-nilly.  Otherwise, those randomly sprinkled marks of punctuation may rein havoc.  We Americans are already having enough trouble communicating peacefully with one another.  We con't need you to add fuel to the fire.




  1. I know it's a serious issue so sorry--but I found it hilarious! Thank you!!

    1. Hilarity is what I was going for, Ovidia. Thank you!!!! AA

  2. Hahahaha! I love this post. It also makes me want to cry. Thank you, Annamaria! xx

    1. The underlying issue makes me grind my teeth. But laughing is the better alternative. I am glad it is working for us. XxAA

  3. To increase your longevity (comma) I suggest you revert to typing (period)

  4. I wish, Stan! Since the condition of my superannuated spine limits my typing hours, I try to hoard those for fiction writing. Besides, as I recall, it was your kind suggestion that brought me to tech dictation, and I am grateful to have it, even though I(comma) once in while (comma) I lecture its creators (period or full stop, depending on what continent I happen to be on).

  5. From AA: I waited until late in the day. This blog posted to see if anyone would pick up on the fact that there is a mistake in it of the type dictation software also often makes, choosing the wrong homonym. My blog text came out with the word “rein” when it should say “rain havoc.“ This I suppose could be the subject of another letter to the engineers. But maybe not.

    However, please notice that in this comment, I paused long enough in the first sentence for the dictation software to put in a period and start a new sentence when there was absolutely no logic for it to do so. The prosecution rests!

  6. I’ve always loved punctuation accidents.

    1. Me too, Kwei! And “accident” is a great word in this context. I love humor in all its forms, but accidental hilarity is a wonderful gift. AA