Photo and text by Sidelong
I lost my job today. The main reasons stated were that my opinions expressed in this blog, in that wiki, and in day to day communications with staff, contradicted the directions of the unit I was working within. Of course these reasons alone, as I put them, would not be enough cause to fire me, so inflation of other reasons was necessary… Anyway, this is just one reason why I’m up at 2.30 in the morning. I couldn’t sleep, so I might as well jot down a few ideas.
Photo by Dave Morris
A while back I posted Broadbanding Information describing an idea on how to get the information locked up in ‘academic rigor’ more readable and therefore accessible to a wider readership. I got a few positive responses to that initial idea, and subsequently want to suggest a way software developers could contribute.
It involves the word processing/language tools department – thesaurus and spell check to be exact. As I write this post, above the box in which I am typing are a number of formatting tools I can use. Bold, italic, colour, hyperlink… then there’s the spell checker. I couldn’t get by without that little god send. Without it I would have to first type this up in OpenOfficeText, spell check it, then copy it over. But Blogger has managed to offer me this powerful feature right here, saving me the hassle (even suggesting to me that I may not need a text editor installed on my computer anymore…). I want them to take it a step further. And not just Blogger either. Everyone offering a WYSIWYG editor should take this idea:
Basically, it is a spell checker split into 3 levels. Each level represents a level of English reading such as: 1 = primary, E as a second language, etc. 2 = secondary, popular terms and expressions, SMS, etc. 3 = tertiary, expert level, big words, academic. When I hit the spell check button, it would ask me what level I want to check at. If I want my writing (or just a selection within it) to be broadly readable, then I’d select 1. If I knew that my writing was specialised, and almost impossible to simplify, I’d give 1 or 2 a go, just to see, but would probably settle for 3 if they didn’t work. Each level of spell check would simply have a predetermined list of words suitable to that readership level. If the words in the writing do not appear in that list, then they are simply presented as miss-spelled.
Now, that alone would be frustrating to people without the talent for writing in an accessible way. They might be so caught up in an academic level of expressing themselves that they simply cannot write it any other way. Simply presenting a big word as miss-spelt wouldn’t really help. That’s were the wikithesaurus part of this idea comes in to play.
Imagine if the wiktionary (the free dictionary) was broken up into these 3 broad categories. It wouldn’t have to be apparent to everyday users, just some database setup perhaps. Contributors to the wiktionary could progressively develop the lists of words for the readership levels, and also link across the levels to suggest more complex or more simple words in a thesaurus type of way.
So now, when I clicked that spell checker, it would still first ask me what level I want to check at, but instead of presenting words not in that level’s list as miss-spelt, it would call on wiktionay and recognise the word being used, then suggest other words more appropriate to the selected level. Not only progressive academics trying to reach their broader community would benefit, but people trying to improve their literacy as well – the school boy trying to make his essay read more ‘expertly’ uses the tool and gets guidance in a more useful way… or the Taiwanese kid trying to comprehend some verbose English text, runs it through the spell checker at a level 2 to get a better idea…
Photo byChung Wei
I realise this may be a big ask for our humble WYSIWYG editor. That’s why I posted this idea to the OpenOffice Developer Mail List. But disappointingly I haven’t had a response from anyone there yet, maybe it didn’t get through. While it may be a challenge to set a WYSIWYG editor up to do this, it should be a piece of cake for a full blown desktop application. It would certainly secure OpenOffice as the better word processor that it already is.
So I hope some language tools programmer reads this some day, and lets me know were my idea falls short.
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