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Check Your Brain -- Then Your Grammar!
by Ronald Bruce Meyer
first published in "Seeds & Stems"
--a publication of the Maryland Apple Corps, Inc.--

You Still Need to Learn to Write.
You Still Need to Know Your Grammar.

Author's Note: This piece was originally written for that Macintosh computer user's group, sometime around 1995, under the title of "Correct Grammar vs. Word 5.1a Grammar/Style Checker: a comparison." Because I think the conclusion is current, if not the version of that Microsoft® product, I have rewritten and updated the essay. Two facts have changed in the interim: (1) I use a more current version of Word and (2) Correct Grammar no longer exists (nor does any stand-alone, grammar-checking software of which I'm aware). In fact, most word processors now have grammar checking built in. But in the following essay, I say why I think that's not necessarily a good thing.

A side-by-side comparison of speed and features is a good way to tell whether a stand-alone grammar and style checker is worth the additional expense, or whether you can get by with what Microsoft Word, or any other word processor, has built in. I tested both products on three different types and lengths of writing:

1) "Sonnet XXIX" by William Shakespeare (114 words, 3K file)
2) "The Drive Home" written by myself (1207 words, 9K file)
3) "Galileo" written by myself (3416 words, 25K file)

I chose the Shakespearean sonnet for the archaic language and its brevity -- and perhaps also for the potential humor resulting from the "checker" flag on any errors. For those who don't remember "Sonnet XXIX," here it is (the *s indicate archaic words):

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep* my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur'd* like him, like him with friends possess'd,*
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;

For thy sweet love remember'd* such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

The other two selections I tested were my own, and are less "artistic." I chose "The Drive Home" (an essay on how I wrecked my car in 1993) because it's one of the shorter things I've written and because it's in a casual, journalistic style. I chose the "Galileo" piece because of its length and the complexity of the language and syntax I use: it's written in a more academic style.

Grammar/Style Checking in Seconds

First, a word about Correct Grammar 3.2 ($79.95 list; $49 street), "the most intelligent grammar checker you can buy." This application is actually a grammar and style checker, meaning that it checks for adherence to rules of grammar as well as to conventions of modern English style. The publisher even supplies an entire appendix in its 131-page manual on the philosophy and methodology of Correct Grammar. (NB: Correct Grammar no longer exists.)

You can launch Correct Grammar and check an unopened file created in any word processor it recognizes. There is no need to run both applications. The grammar and style algorithms in Correct Grammar are very sophisticated (why that's important, anon). You can select from a number of "styles" of checking: default, academic, advertising, basics, business, custom, fiction, informal, legal, readability only, reviewer, technical. These checking styles allow you greater flexibility in checking, with rules either relaxed or strict, and long sentences, fragments, and passive voice flagged or not.

Correct Grammar can be extensively customized. Grammar and style rules can be "toggled" (turned off and on) individually or a group at a time (a group is called a " class"). They can be permanently disabled (that is, until you turn them back on) or disabled for one session only. You can even program in your own rules (if you happen to know your own shortcomings!) Unless you disable the spelling checker, Correct Grammar simultaneously checks that, too.

Most of the above applies to the grammar/style checker in Word (in its current form, as well). I'll call it WordGrammar, for want of a better name, since you can't talk about something if it doesn't have a name. A menu item under Tools ("Spelling and Grammar" or F7), WordGrammar works within a Word document in much the same way as does Correct Grammar, though of course you have to open the document in the first place. Grammar and style rules can be manipulated in Word, too, and you can create your own rules or styles. As with Correct Grammar, WordGrammar checks your spelling, too.

For the purpose of my testing, all rules were turned on, all style suggestions were ignored, and all word change suggestions were dismissed. It quickly became clear why the grammar and style algorithms must be sophisticated: if you're a good writer, you'll get frustrated with inappropriate and unnecessary suggestions; if you're a bad writer, taking some of the suggestions will actually make your writing worse. However, for the purpose of this updated review essay, I was not so much interested in speed as I was in what was flagged and how much effort I must invest in checking grammar.

As my original (1995) review pointed out, Correct Grammar was marginally faster than WordGrammar on shorter pieces of writing, but blew Microsoft out of the water on the 3416-word "Galileo" piece; perhaps because Word was doing so much else, such as maintaining a sophisticated word processor architecture, and had to work on an open document. Correct Grammar was faster on the longer essay.

But, as I mentioned, letting the grammar checker have its own way is not only unwise, and it isn't the way a grammar checker is, or should be, used.


In this regard, neither package gives me occasion to stand up and cheer. Correct Grammar, as sophisticated as it is, flagged numerous "errors" that weren't really errors -- given the context. In "Sonnet XXIX," for example, Shakespeare's last line...

For thy sweet love remember'd* such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

...was criticized for containing no main clause.

And what do I have to do to stay on "politically correct" ground? In "The Drive Home," which began with a description of how the men were dressed at the celebration I was attending, I was accused of using "sexist" language for describing the scene using that particular plural noun:

Consider a form of "people," "humanity" or "humankind" instead.
I suppose I should have said there were "people" wearing black tie...

But I got the most grief in my long essay on the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei and his troubles with the Catholic Church. Mind you, this next "error" was flagged even though I was using the "Academic" style selection. The sentence was more complicated than the average newspaper sentence, but it certainly didn't lack what it accused me of omitting:

For example, Father Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit and rival, charged that his ideas lead "to a denial of the real presence in the Eucharist."
A main clause can stand alone as a sentence and usually does not begin with a conjunction. Words like "that" or "as" often serve as conjunctions to introduce clauses that must depend on a main clause.

The grammar checkers were not very bright when it comes to counting inclusionary symbols, such as (), [], {}, <>, and so on. When I tried to put square brackets inside parentheses...

(An implicit inclusion of Galileo's book, and also certain works of the German astronomer Johannes Kepler [1571-1630])

...I got the following note:

Consider deleting the last punctuation mark of this combination.

Then I got the final insult: When I used a word that's been current since at least the middle of the 19th century, at least in an academic context, I was told it was "Nonstandard."

It is argued that the Index did not commit papal infallibility to the judgment of science; that the Index was not the Church speaking ex cathedra.
Nonstandard words and phrases might be appropriate in very informal speech, but you should avoid them in writing. They can annoy your reader and detract attention from what you are trying to express. Consider "anywhere" instead.

Huh? As you can see, I was given an alternative word that is so wide of the mark as to be laughable. Talk about annoying your reader!

In "The Drive Home" I got 30 notices that my sentences were too difficult. Many times "small" was suggested to replace "few." Many times "that" was suggested to replace "which" and vice versa. If I'm not clear on the proper occasion for each word myself, neither was the grammar checker. I found only three valid suggestions for changes.

In "Galileo" I got the "that/which" flag a few times, but the biggest complaint was about my use of passive voice. Academic writing, as opposed to journalistic writing, thrives on passive voice. In history, sometimes things are allowed to happen, rather than taking direct action.

Some other odd flags: to substitute "follow" for "observe"; sentence fragments that were not; periods following a closing parentheses; an inability to deal with quotes intermixed with narrative. And twice more I was accused of sexism in a sentence specifically about a man. I wonder, do grammar checkers have something against men?

Even when I managed to compose complete sentences, one was flagged as a run-on. Maybe it was because it had the word "running" in it? See if you agree:

All the while I was verbally coaxing the car, hoping it would continue running.
This appears to be a run-on sentence.

Word-Grammar insisted I use a possessive, or a possessive plural, where it was clearly inappropriate, as in this sentence:

This was a "black tie" affair, so I had to rent a tuxedo. I had neither rented nor worn formal wear since high school, some twenty years ago (I'm a little fatter now than I was then).
Consider year's or years' instead of years.
And, in the "Galileo" piece, WordGrammar also mistook for a fragment the portion of a complete sentence which happened to follow a right parenthesis.

So, maybe grammar checkers don't like my writing. Well, how about Shakespeare? In "Sonnet XXIX," not surprisingly, all of Shakespeare's contractions got flagged. I admit, most are obsolete today. But the grammar checkers thought they would fix the Bard:

For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Consider using "Who" or "What" instead.

Hmm. Should it be one of these...?

A] For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
Who then I scorn to change my state with kings.
B] For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
What then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Finally, even though the last line of "Sonnet XXIX" was not preceded by a period, it was flagged as a fragment.

Rantings and Ratings

The "Galileo" essay was rated grade level 12 (69% of US adults), with a Gunning Fog Index of 11.7. "The Drive Home" was rated grade level 7 (91% of US adults), with a Gunning Fog Index of 8.1, meaning, I guess, that it was a bit easier for the average non-specialist reader to understand. "Sonnet XXIX" at least had no passive voice sentences; it was rated grade level 0 (2% of US adults), with a Gunning Fog Index of 4.0. That one-sentence sonnet has a reading difficulty that goes right off the scale -- Shakespeare isn't for everybody, I guess!

I was annoyed that the grammar and spelling checkers could be taught to recognize proper names -- mine, for example -- but couldn't automatically recognize the obvious possessive: Ronald's. But here's my problem with the whole concept of interactive grammar checkers: If the right electron doesn't know what the left neuron is doing, there's going to be trouble. I believe context is everything. Without the context of the entire sentence or, even better, the surrounding paragraph, it's difficult to make grammar judgments.

And that judgment is what makes a human editor infinitely superior to today's level of computer sophistication. The code has not been written that can exercise even the most unimaginative human editor's judgment on grammar and style. The day may come when you'll be able to turn on your Super-Duper Ultimate Automatic Grammar and Style Fixer App and turn pedestrian prose into a polished Pulitzer piece. But the variables are so numerous, the judgments to make so context-driven, and writing so individual, that that wish may never be fulfilled.

If I had to choose one grammar checker over the other, I'd choose... actually, none. You see, grammar checkers take more time out of my life than I'm willing to spare. Nothing that I've seen can work as well as my constant attention and active judgment. They make bizarre suggestions and often offer inappropriate advice. That's why I say the best choice would be learning to write.

It's not as if you can start the grammar checker and go make a sandwich, after all: you have to be there; you have to make judgments; in fact, it should come as no surprise, you have to know your grammar! Were it left to the grammar checkers to fix things, even the most excellent writing would be turned into structurally complete, grammatically accurate, and stylistically correct sentences. Of random garbage.

Lagniappe (an extra or unexpected gift or benefit): Out of curiosity once more, I checked the reading grade level of this essay. I'm happy to report that I will graduate high school!
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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer. And a high school graduate.