Musings

Auto-punctuation and syntactic processing

Once in a while, when I might want to construct a clever piece of SMS text-art, I can be annoyed by the automatic placement of the period (full stop) after entering space two times. We must design for the most common use cases however, and on the whole, I do like this auto-fill logic. The little things are often what delight users the most.

Being too liberal with a well-intended shortcut or assumption can be a UX calamity, but I believe that with some additional linguistic information (and a fair amount of user testing), the double-tap auto-punctuation could be extended to questions with a fair amount of success.

Present functionality

Let’s keep in mind that at present, this feature applies a period any time the space button is hit twice in a row. It could interrupt a sentence, or easily mislabel a question or exclamation. It’s currently up to the user to add alternative punctuation before continuing, or to erase the auto-punctuation and correct it.

Proposed functionality

Imagine double-tapping the space bar and iOS would predictively produce proper punctuation — I couldn’t resist the alliteration. This would be informed with linguist programing about content (question words) and context (companion words that differentiate statement from question).

Do you know how to do this? versus You know how to do this.
Reason: Presence of auxiliary “do” in Do*know. Note that the statesman also has the word “do,” but only as an infinitive (to*).

English can be tricky with its question semantics, and this solution would require localized code for different input languages, unlike the global period insertion.

Limitations, Advantages

For English usage, the limitations are easily apparent. It may require too much precious processing to scan an entire string of text for this kind of semantic context. For some languages it might be pointless if an opening punctuation is used – such as the Spanish ¿?. It would be interesting to survey Spanish users to see how prevalent this convention is during SMS or other mobile communication. My hunch is that like many English vowels, these opening question marks are usually dropped for brevity.

Some languages lend themselves to very “easy” semantic processing; so much so that one might think “why aren’t we doing this automatically?” To reference Spanish again (the only other language I feel qualified to write about), circumstance words are supposed to be spelled differently in the context of a question.

What/how is (she/he/it) like?
¿Cómo es?
What/how (she/he/it) is like.
Como es.
Interrogative circumstance words (what, where, etc.) have an accent, but do not in statements.

This is just a potential shortcut, and there are many question sentences without one of the “five Ws,” but it’s an example of logic that can circumvent contextual rules. Some languages even have question words (Japanese and Mandarin come to mind), but they also tend to not use question marks as far as I know.

This is just a few minutes of brainstorming, but if done properly, it could pretty useful, couldn’t it.

What do you think.
See what I did there.

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