Computer fails Churchill’s speech

Winston Churchill’s fight on the beaches  speech might have stirred the hearts and minds of the people to whom it was addressed, but it failed to impress a computer marker.

David Wright, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), an umbrella body for exam boards and other organisations, said that Churchill’s speeches to the nation in 1940 had not impressed the computer. It criticised his repetition of the words “upon” and “our” and did not identify “broad, sunlit uplands” as a metaphor.

The computer didn’t think much of the prose of Ernest Hemingway or William Golding either.

The idea that a computer could mark an English essay doesn’t altogether thrill me. But its assessment of Churchill’s speech and the other writers’ work makes me feel much better about the arguments I have with the grammar checker on my PC.

Hat Tip: Society of Authors’ newsletter.

7 Responses to Computer fails Churchill’s speech

  1. ZenTiger says:

    At first glance, I’m thinking that every bit of prose that is marked pass or fail, only passes or fails whatever arbitrary value that is used to measure the works, and that in itself is limited.

    The speech gains power in the context of the times, the emotion and mental state of the audience and the passion and tone of the voice.

    Live through a war, with friends and family killed around you, and one’s perception would naturally be very different. We detect those echoes even today in reading the speeches, because we are not just parsing the words, we are remembering…or at least imagining the times in which they were uttered.

    Not just computers fail to understand and see the full picture, and I find it disappointing that people actually believe the computer at its current technology could even be thought able to perform such analysis. It is an insult to human communication.



  2. scrubone says:

    Yea, but it can mark multi-choice, why can’t english departments get the same benefits – it’s discrimination, I tell you.


  3. JC says:

    I like this famous bit from Churchill, but I doubt the computer would..

    “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”


  4. ZenTiger says:

    Yes, the computer might find that very long winded and repetitive.

    Maybe “Be persistent”?

    Really loses the emotion though, doesn’t it?


  5. Paul Corrigan says:

    Wonder what the computer would have thought of Churchill’s ‘terminological inexactitudinarian’, which he was forced to use after the Speaker ruled that it was unparliamentary to call another member a liar.


  6. Ed Snack says:

    This is a little unfair, the computer was judging the words as prose, and speeches are NOT prose. Churchill’s speeches gain a great deal from rhetorical devices that do not work in standard prose. I am not the least surprised that the speech was failed, as prose it doesn’t really work. But it was of course a great speech.


  7. ZenTiger says:

    This is a little unfair, the computer was judging the words as prose,

    1. I heard the computer’s feelings were hurt too.
    2. People turned on the computer and feed the speech into it, and said “Evaluate as Prose”. Said people are therefore stupid, and used a computer to prove it.
    3. When the computer tried again, and judged the prose as speech, it still failed Churchill. Apparently, it went through it’s data banks of “great speeches” and found the same speech. Word for word. Got failed for plagiarism 🙂


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