Why the iPhone won't let you ducking swear

Thank Apple software engineer Ken Kocienda for turning your foul language into fowl language on your iPhone. He shares the thinking behind the autocorrect feature that he says was the right decision at the time.

'I was the person responsible for making the software ... I'm sorry,' says Ken Kocienda

Ken Kocienda is the man behind the SMS autocorrect feature on iPhones that prevents swearing in texts. He's sorry - not sorry - because at the time it was the best decision to make when launching the Apple product. (Submitted by Ken Kocienda)
Listen18:20

Read story transcript

Unless you've never uttered a dirty word, you've likely had an impassioned text using profanity autocorrected on your iPhone — and judging from the new products Apple announced this week, it doesn't look like the feature will be changing anytime soon.   

Engineer Ken Kocienda is responsible for creating the autocorrect feature for the original Apple product. Kocienda was a principal engineer of iPhone software at Apple for over 15 years, and recounts his experiences in his book, Creative Selection: Inside Apple's Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs.

Kocienda explained the thinking behind the autocorrect software to The Current's Friday host Michelle Shephard.

Here is part of their conversation.

So WTF Ken? Why does iPhone want to clean up our language?

Well, this is part of a product decision that we made years ago for the original iPhone. I was the person responsible for making the software keyboard, compiling the dictionary and working with the team to make this decision to get in the way of your swearing. I'm sorry.

It's so fascinating to hear about those early days. Can you take us into those labs? What were you thinking when you were designing the autocorrect software?

Let me just take you back for a second. If you think about smartphones before the iPhone, it was the BlackBerry, with its hardware keyboard, those little plastic chiclet keys. Well, the iPhone was never going to have a keyboard like that  — you couldn't feel the keys. So the software had to step in to help you get what you wanted to type.

(pixabay/quinntheislander)

So we came across this problem that you're bringing up here of swearing. Let me tell you about it from the other angle.

Picture yourself. You're on vacation. You've rented a house by the lake and you want to tell grandma about it. You want to tell her about the beautiful ducks on the pond. You don't want the software to come in and replace that word and have the message take a whole other direction.

And so, I'm sorry ... but it was the best choice that we could make at the time.

I covered terrorism for the last 15 years and whenever I try and type 'it is', I now get 'ISIS'. And 'she has' becomes 'Shabaab'. How does the technology work?

The idea of autocorrect is that it looks at the patterns of the keys that you type — to type the word that you're going for. Now, in your case, covering terrorism with these new terms, and so the software learns, well, these are pretty important words for you. You type them a lot.

This is the text our producer Samira Mohyeddin received from her sister right after she was assigned to work on this ducking autocorrect software story. (Salome Mohyeddin)

So the iPhone wants to change 'f--k' to duck. How did you settle on that? Why not 'luck' or 'truck'?

Well, it has to do with the proximity of the keys to each other. Autocorrection isn't spelling correction — I mean, we're pretty familiar with how the computer can help us with our faulty spelling. But on the iPhone it was a matter of, you can't feel the keys, and so it's likely you're going to make these little mistakes to the right or to the left or above or below. And so the letter D for 'duck' and the letter F for—well, that other word—they're right next to each other on the keyboard. So that's why those two words kind of got this magnetic attraction to each other.

Has there ever been any talk of tweaking the anti-profanity part of the software?

We've gone back and forth. Let me tell you a different angle on this. From the very beginning, we realized that this problem extends into different areas. For example, hate speech. We actually had to go and research all of the nastiest, most horrible things that people say to each other and about each other and put them in the dictionary. It's kind of an interesting time to just plumb those depths. But the notion there was, we wanted to recognize those words, and I marked them so that the software would never offer them.

Tech culture critic and freelance writer for Slate, Rachel Withers makes the case for getting rid of autocorrect so she can freely express herself on her phone. 0:33

What do you make of this idea that you're limiting an incredibly powerful communication tool with the feature?

I'll be honest with you. I hate the word 'moist' more than I hate the word 'f--k'.

Yeah it's a difficult issue. Part of the challenge for making products like the iPhone is that you don't know who's going to be buying them. And these days, of course, kids have smartphones.

Ken Kocienda wonders if during the time of the printing press, parents complained their kids were always reading books - obsessed with the new technology - rather than in the fields ploughing. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I think you hit on an important point there. This is an age where we have access to so much that is really quite salacious content at our fingertips. Doesn't it seem a bit quaint and puritanical that this part hasn't been changed with the newest phone?

It's a question of continuing this discovery of where these products fit into our culture. We had nothing like iPhones when I was a kid growing up in the 1970s. It would have seemed magical to be on a city street and get a map pointing directly to where I am, and then text my friends telling them exactly where we're going to meet.

So I hope that we're going to continue deciding what role and what features and where this swearing decision is going to come down.

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.


This Q & A was edited for clarity and length. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin and Howard Goldenthal.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.