23 October 2023

To __, or not to ___.

My computer just developed a strange glitch.  It stopped letting me type the letter that lives right after A, and ahead of C .  It’s the second letter in that thing we learn in grade school (often sung in an cloying little ditty) that I can’t name, since the word includes the letter that my computer no longer allows.  This has resulted in moments of frustration, and creative resilience, since I need to write around the impediment. 

It's not too much to ask, I think, to have access to all the letters at the tip of my fingers.  We are accustomed to this handy array, and hardly need some censorious technical quirk to interfere with the free flow of expression.  Though here I am, tethered to the need to come up with endless workarounds that I hope make sense, and with luck, still demonstrate a facility with the language. 

If you’re still wondering which letter is now out of reach, it's also the name of a stinging insect.  Think of a creature with orange stripes that zings around flowers and often lands on your egg and croissant sandwich when you’re having an outdoor, early morning repast.  I’ve come to deeply respect the utility of this letter, and wonder if the whole experience wasn’t instigated to alert my attention to its value in written discourse. 

You don’t know what you’re missing till it’s gone.   If you want to know what it’s like to live without sight, put an opaque cloth across your eyes for an hour or two.  Try walking around with one leg pulled up at the knee.  Or try writing the expression, “With one hand tied….” without that crucial letter.   Or refer to the most significant rock group in history, whose name also gives indirect reference to a common insect. 

I’m grateful the computer didn’t rule out the letter E, which that famous word game (which kicks off with an S and has two of the omitted letters in the middle) tells us is the most common.  Indispensable.  As is true of the other vowels.  Losing S would also pose a major hurdle. Try making a plural without an S.

When I write an email, spell check is now an ally, rather than a nagging, and often presumptuous, irritant.  I write a word with the missing letter, and it often offers up the correct version.  This works, though not always.  I can also scope out older documents for the word I want, copy it, and paste it in.  This also works, though I would need a longer lifespan to compose a decent amount of text. 

When writing a Word document, I would love to go to the thesaurus function to find an alternative, yet can’t write the word I’m trying to replace.  So I just mutter, “This is all such _ullshit.”

I’ve scoured Microsoft and Lenovo help screens hoping to find a quick fix, for naught.  Try asking, “Why can’t I type the letter…?” Oh, yeah.  I can’t type it.  My Apple devices, the iPad and iPhone, have no such restrictions.  This could also provide a workaround, though I can’t type nearly as fast with the two fingers scientists claim gave us an evolutionary advantage.  Good for flipping coins and catching a ride on the highway. 

I’ve determined that the world could go on without this mislaid letter, though in a very diminished state.  We would discover new creative powers, and perhaps accomplish unexpected works of art.  Yet at the end of the day, having exhausted ourselves dodging and weaving around this lexicographical curse, how satisfied would you feel saying, “I’m so tired, I just want to fall into that piece of furniture uniquely configured to facilitate sleep.” 




  1. Very funny, Chris. Many years ago at Criminal Brief one December we offered a quiz with a prize. The trick was to determine what our columns had in common. The answer was that, in honor of the holiday they were all missing one letter: No L. Eventually, someone figured it out.

  2. LOL! I've had keyboards like that! Right now, my TV remote won't let me punch in the number 9!

  3. BUY A NEW KEYBOARD! And then take the old one out back and kick it in the _alls.

    1. "We would like to be rich enough to throw our venerable typewriter out the window and buy a brand new one of the same make, and throw it out of the window, too." -Arthur Perry

  4. A fun piece!

    There is a very good Ellery Queen novel that uses this. I'm not going to say which one because it would be a spoiler. I did a SleuthSayers piece on constrained writing ten years ago -- link here for anyone interested! https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2013/02/constrained-writing.html

    1. Dale, you beat me to it. I was going to mention this book, too.

  5. Lovely morning read with my coffee! Oh, how one letter can flummox an entire project! I'm off to check out that Ellery Queen novel - Melodie

  6. Chris, with mention of Lenovo, I assume you're working with Windows. Although I use a Mac, I have experience that might _e relevant.

    The initial generations of the MacBook Air used the so-called butterfly keyboard that died prematurely. I found two temporary solutions.

    The most universal solution was to copy the letter b (or whichever) in PLAIN TEXT into the clipboard. Small utility text processors like NotePad and TextEdit (and possibly WordPad) don't have size and style formatting concerns, so if done right, the clipboard should contain a pure letter B. When you need one in your document, you simply paste and the contents of your clipboard appear in your document.

    I don't know if the Windows store has an equivalent, but from the beginning, Macs have shipped with a 'desk accessory' called Keyboard. This virtual typewriter, a visual representation representation of a keyboard with clickable keys, remains today. Placed in the corner of the screen, it allowed me to continue working until I could replace the failing device.

    Good luck! I know that frustration.


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