iOS 13 Autocorrect Is Drunk

I asked the following on Twitter Tuesday: “Does anyone else find that autocorrect on iOS 13 (including 13.1) makes more mistakes than before? Can’t tell if it’s a real issue or just an anti-placebo effect.”

The resulting thread is overflowing with answers in the affirmative. One thing I and others have noticed is that when you type a dictionary word correctly — meaning you hit the exact right keys on the on-screen keyboard — iOS 13 autocorrect will replace it with a different dictionary word that makes no contextual sense. Even beyond dictionary words, I’m seeing really strange corrections. Two nights ago I typed “Dobbs”, including the Shift key for the “D”, and iOS 13.1 autocorrected it to “adobe”, with a lowercase “a”.

I don’t see how that’s even close on a QWERTY keyboard. The way autocorrect tends to work is to look for alternate words based on the proximity of letters on the keyboard. Most famously, fuck gets replaced by duck because the D key is next to F on a QWERTY keyboard. That’s why it never replaces fuck with, say, suck, puck, or luck — it’s always duck because D and F are next to each other.1

So how in the world does “Dobbs” get replaced by “adobe”? Even “Adobe” would make slightly more sense, because that’s a common proper noun (and one I personally use) and would acknowledge that I hit the Shift key to type an uppercase letter. Letter by letter, with “×” denoting letters nowhere near each other on the keyboard, “✓” denoting the same letter, and “-” denoting characters close to each other on the keyboard:

D o b b s
a d o b e
× × × ✓ - 

Even the S/E substitution is questionable, though — iOS’s autocorrect, in my experience, usually looks at characters next to each other in the same row of the keyboard. The E key is above and mostly to the right of S.

[Update: A few minutes after publishing, a few readers suggested a somewhat reasonable explanation for Dobbs/adobe: A is above the Shift key on the iPhone keyboard, so if the keyboard thought I meant A instead of Shift, the rest of the letters line up a bit better, although the keyboard also has to interpret the double B’s as a mistake too. I still say this is a terrible substitution, and can’t recall anything like it prior to iOS 13.]

A lot of the examples in the responses to my tweet are even more baffling, including words being substituted from other languages.

I tweeted this wondering if the autocorrect suckage I was seeing was just me — perhaps the result of a reverse placebo effect (a.k.a. nocebo effect) where, once I suspected autocorrect in iOS 13 might be bad, I started seeing what I expected to see. But now I’m close to convinced that, among iOS 13.0 and 13.1’s numerous other bugs and problems, autocorrect has suffered a severe regression.

One possible culprit: iOS 13’s new “Slide to Type” feature, which is enabled by default. I have tried various swipe-to-type keyboards over the years (on both iOS, via third-party keyboards; and Android, where they’ve long been prevalent as built-in features), and have never taken to them. My thumb-pecking habits were long ago hardwired into my brain. So I turned this feature off on iOS 13 last night. I have no idea if that’s the culprit — I haven’t used the iPhone long enough since turning it off to pass judgment — but given that I don’t want to use Slide to Type anyway, it can’t hurt to try. Feel free to chime in on the Twitter thread if you’re seeing similar autocorrect wonkiness.

  1. The origins of this heuristic are explored and explained in detail by the creator of the original iPhone keyboard, Ken Kocienda, in his book Creative Selection. It’s one of the most remarkable books on Apple ever written, and in particular, offers a detailed look at one of the truly make-or-break features of the original iPhone. It’s hard to overstate how much skepticism the iPhone faced over its lack of a hardware keyboard. ↩︎