Tools for Pattern-Spotting


Tools are needed in almost every human endeavour, from making pottery to predicting the weather. Computer tools are useful because they enable certain actions to be performed easily, and this facility means that it becomes possible to do more complex jobs. It becomes possible to gain insights because when you can try an idea out quickly and easily, you can experiment, and from experimentation comes insight. Also, re-casting a set of data in a new form enables the human being to spot patterns.

This is ironic. The computer is an awful device for recognising patterns. It is good at addition, sorting, etc. It has a memory but it does not know or understand anything, and for a computer to recognise printed characters, never mind reading hand-writing, is a major accomplishment.

Nevertheless, the computer is a good device for helping humans to spot patterns and trends. That is why it is important to see computer tools such as these in WordSmith Tools in their true light. A tool helps you to do your job, it doesn't do your job for you.


Tool versus Product

Some software is designed as a product. A game is self-contained, so is an electronic dictionary. A word-processor, spreadsheet or database, on the other hand, is a tool because it goes beyond its own borders: you use it to achieve something which the manufacturers could not possibly anticipate.  WordSmith Tools, as the name states, are not products but tools. You can use them to investigate many kinds of pattern in virtually any texts written in a good range of different languages.


Insight through Transformation

No, this is not a religious claim! The claim I am making is psychological. It is through changing the shape of data, reducing it and then re-casting it in a different format, that the human capacity for noticing patterns comes to the fore. The computer cannot "notice" at all (if you input 2 into a calculator and then keep asking it to double it, it will not notice what you're up to and begin to do it automatically!). Human beings are good at noticing, and particularly good at noticing visual patterns.

By transforming a text into a list, or by plotting keywords in terms of where they crop up in their source texts, the human user will tend to see a pattern. Indeed we cannot help it. Sometimes we see patterns where none was intended (e.g. in a cloud). There can be no guarantee that the pattern is "really there": it's all in the mind of the beholder.

WordSmith Tools are intended to help this process of pattern-spotting, which leads to insight. The tools in this kit are intended therefore to help you gain your own insights on your own data from your own texts.


Types of Tool

All tools take up positions on two scales: the scale of specialisation and the scale of permanence.


general-purpose ----------------- specialised


The spade is a digging tool which makes cutting and lifting soil easier than it otherwise would be. But it can also be used for shovelling sand or clearing snow. A sewing machine can be used to make curtains or handkerchiefs. A word-processor is general-purpose.


A thimble is dedicated to the purpose of protecting the fingers when sewing and is rarely used for anything else. An overlock device is dedicated to sewing button-holes and hems: it's better at that job than a sewing machine but its applications are specialised. A spell-checker within a word-processor is fairly specialised.


temporary ----------------- permanent


The branch a gorilla uses to pull down fruit is a temporary tool. After use it reverts to being a spare piece of tree. A plank used as a tool for smoothing concrete is similar. It doesn't get labelled as a tool though it is used as one. This kind of makeshift tool is called "quebra-galho", literally branch-breaker, in Brazilian Portuguese.


A chisel is manufactured, catalogued and sold as a permanent tool. It has a formal label in our vocabulary. Once bought, it takes up storage room and needs to be kept in good condition.

The  WordSmith Tools in this kit originated from temporary tools and have become permanent. They are intended to be general-purpose tools: this is the Swiss Army knife for lexis. They won't cut your fingers but you do need to know how to use them.


see also : Word Clouds, Dispersion Plots, Acknowledgements

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