Why is the spacebar still needed in typing written language?
April 2, 2024 3:23 PM   Subscribe

In this era of AI predictive text, on phones and also full-keyboard apps in which you type language (not code), it seems like we could save a ton of time, finger movement, and errors if the app just inserted the spaces between words for us along the way as we were typing. Are there any apps that already do this? Aside from the idea that this is possibly very low priority for companies to explore, would this actually be feasible and useful if it started to be implemented as an optional feature?

To clarify, I would love for software to stop requiring me to hit a large rectangle 25 times with my thumb in the case of this sentence. I often find that especially on the phone, I make all kinds of typos involving the spacebar, and then realized that maybe this doesn't even need to be a thing anymore? Does this idea make sense to you and would you use this feature?
posted by oxisos to Computers & Internet (17 answers total)
On GBoard you don't need a spacebar if you slide-to-type. Once you lift your finger it guesses the word you wanted and inserts it as well as a space.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:29 PM on April 2 [5 favorites]

I haven't seen an app that does this, but it's an interesting idea. I think you'd still need a way to enter spaces, if only to make corrections.

Along the same lines, y cn prbbly do wtht typng mst vwls.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 3:30 PM on April 2

iOS also supports slide-to-type
posted by Phssthpok at 3:50 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

There is of course the problem of strings that change meaning depending on where you insert word breaks, like “expertsexchange,” or “menswear,” or “oddsextractor.” And in addition, you’d have problems in the areas where autocorrect already struggles, like uncommon proper names, acronyms, or switching between languages within a message.

More sophisticated language models will make better guesses in all of these cases, but will never be 100% perfect.

Many languages don't use spaces or other word breaks in writing, and this works for them despite occasional ambiguities.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:15 PM on April 2 [12 favorites]

|Along the same lines, y cn prbbly do wtht typng mst vwls.

Only in English and other similar languages.

But to answer the question - more and more I’m using predictive text as I type which seems to be built into software and apps so I imagine this will keep evolving.
posted by miles1972 at 4:15 PM on April 2

The folks on Pen Island have an opinion on this topic.
posted by SPrintF at 5:00 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

It's the Scunthorpe problem. Interpreting words in the absence of spaces often depends a lot of context that isn't easily automated.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:04 PM on April 2

The old Blackberry predictive typing did this when you selected a text prediction, and the related SwiftKey keyboard app does it too. It's great.
posted by sepviva at 5:38 PM on April 2

> Only in English and other similar languages.

Not true, written Arabic usually elides (short) vowels. I think possibly Hebrew does as well.

Skipping spaces is already a thing for mobile device input methods -- but I doubt the premise that there are 'performance' advantages when using 2 hands on a keyboard, but who knows.
posted by so fucking future at 7:35 PM on April 2

With swipe/glide keyboards you don't need to press a space key, but you do mark the end of a word by lifting your finger from the screen.

For typing methods that don't mark the end of a word in one way or another, algorithms can disambiguate input to a decent extent, but one tradeoff besides accuracy is that what you see displayed on the screen as you type it isn't necessarily going to be the words you're thinking, and it might change several times as the algorithm makes new guesses about what you actually meant, which can be more annoying for some users than just hitting the spacebar.
posted by trig at 1:54 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

written Arabic usually elides (short) vowels. I think possibly Hebrew does as well.

(See abjad languages)
posted by trig at 1:58 AM on April 3

Be cause English has hundreds of com pound words in it that you use everyday and of ten spacing can have a sign if I cant effect on the meaning and under stand ability of the sentence.

I me an, you're as king this on meta filter.
posted by mhoye at 7:28 AM on April 3 [9 favorites]

as an experiment I asked ChatGPT to try and recover the original sentence and it did a perfectly good job:

> below is some text with no spaces. Insert spaces to make it coherent words:
> BecauseEnglishhashundredsofcompoundwordsinitthatyouuseeverydayandoftenspacingcanhavea signifIcanteffectonthemeaningandunderstandabilityofthesentence.Imean,you'reaskingthisonmetafilter.

Response: "Because English has hundreds of compound words in it that you use every day and often spacing can have a significant effect on the meaning and understandability of the sentence. I mean, you're asking this on MetaFilter."

So, I think this might be doable, but it might need enough context that it would have to wait until you've finished writing a whole sentence before it can go back and insert spaces.
posted by BungaDunga at 8:25 AM on April 3

as an experiment I asked ChatGPT

"We're taking a dependency on datacenters that use more energy and water than most cities and some countries so that you can avoid hitting the spacebar" is not a definition of "doable" that I will tolerate.
posted by mhoye at 8:49 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]

I ran it through ChatGPT to see what the biggest hammer available could make of it. Capabilities like this usually don't actually need the whole model. Running an enormous generalist LLM is not how you would do it: in practice you'd use specialized models that run on your device, same as autocorrect does.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:57 AM on April 3

It could be done using a lexical analyzer. Japanese is written without spaces, and long before consumer AI was around, there were demands to be able to break Japanese text into words. Here's an example of one at work. Note that it made a error (IMO) treating "abunaidesu" as one word, but that seems like a design decision.

I think a big problem with this approach, apart from situations where word breaks are ambiguous, is that the analyzer will need a complete sentence to work with. So you'd type your whole sentence, hit period (assuming those still exist in this shiny scenario), and then proofread what you just wrote to make sure that the analyzer did its job correctly. There would also be the visual disruption of spaces being inserted after the fact, and inserting or deleting spaces post-hoc will be much slower than typing them on the fly.
posted by adamrice at 10:46 AM on April 3

As someone who writes fiction, having seen how awful 'predictive text' is just on my phone... that sounds like a terrible idea. Fighting autocorrect is bad enough. That said, I'm also the kind of person who hates having to type a period and thus double taps the space bar instead.
posted by unsettledink at 11:20 PM on April 3

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