Beyond the Basics: What is the Value of Grammar Check?

ANDREA STEWART

In Chapter 14 of The Copyeditor’s Handbook Amy Einsohn casually presents her readers with what she considers to be a well-known fact regarding grammar check for word processing programs and it’s place in the work of an editor.

If you’re hoping that your word processing program’s grammar checker will save you any time or spare you any errors – forget it. Even for the shortest of texts, these checkers are time consuming and frustrating. They routinely ignore simple errors, repeatedly question unmistakably correct constructions, and suggest substitutions that are flat-out wrong. Most copyeditors simply disable the grammar checker.[i]

Einsohn’s suggestion that a grammar checker was a) useless, and b) easily turned off, gave me pause when reading this chapter, as I admit I was unaware that grammar check came with an off switch. I immediately opened my own word processor (Microsoft Word 2011 for Mac) and highlighted the “Tools” feature and clicked on “Spelling and Grammar.” Sure enough, there, in the bottom left-hand corner of the pop-up window, was a little box labeled “Check Grammar” that could easily be checked on or off with a simple click of the mouse. If turning off grammar check was as easy as Einsohn claimed, then I wondered what else about her statement might have validity. I decided to break Einsohn’s assertion into two separate pieces, and investigate further. Firstly, I plan discover if there is any truth to Einsohn’s claim that grammar checkers ignore errors, question correct sentences, and provide incorrect substitutions, and if this is true, what ramifications might there be for the average user. Secondly, if grammar check does prove to be an imperfect system as Einsohn suggests, should it simply be shut off or does it still have any value as a tool or an aid to editors?

The grammar check FAQ page on the Microsoft Support website seemed to be a logical place to begin my search, but unfortunately the webpage provided little help in finding answers regarding grammar check’s ability to catch errors. I found only the following general disclaimer.

In general, the grammar proofing tool incorrectly marks words or proposes incorrect suggestions when the parser (that is, the grammar proofing component that analyzes the linguistic structure of a sentence) cannot determine the correct structure of the analyzed sentence. Although state-of-the-art in its category, the grammar proofing tool (just like any other commercially available grammar proofing program) is not perfect. Therefore, when you use the grammar proofing tool, you may experience some amount of “false” or “suspect” flagging and subsequent wrong suggestions.[ii]

Note: As I typed the previous passage into Microsoft Word, the program has already found various grammatical errors that it does not like. Ironic that Microsoft’s own program doesn’t like the sentence structure written within its Support Page. Perhaps this is a foreshadowing of the results of my search?

The first sentence in Microsoft’s paragraph is the one that struck me the most when reading. The particular wording seemed to suggest that Microsoft was willing to admit that its program came with errors, but remained vague about exactly those errors were, and if they felt the fault lay truly with the program itself or with the user. Realizing that I wasn’t going to find anything here, I began a new search that eventually led me to a webpage created by Professor Daniel Kies of the College of DuPage, a two-year technical institute located in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. The webpage detailed a ten-year study devoted to determining the effectiveness of different grammar checkers in a variety of difference word processing programs. In his study Professor Kies used 20 different common grammatical errors such as run-on sentences, pronoun agreement, verb tenses, sentence fragments, and many others in order to test the success of various grammar checkers in catching these mistakes. Using this criteria and a point scale of two for every error that a program caught, one if the program occasionally caught an error, and zero if the program never caught the error, Professor Kies discovered the following results. Microsoft Word versions 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2007 each scored a 0 on a point scale of 80, catching none of the hypothetical grammatical errors that were posed to these programs. (I tested Professor Kies’ findings by typing a few of the sentences into my own version of Word 2011 and my results were consistent with his. Since my version is four years newer than the last one Professor Kies tested, this is not particularly encouraging.) Professor Kies did see more success with an older version of Word 97, which scored 19 out of 80, Open Office with Language Tool with 6 out of 80, and Grammarian Pro X, which scored highest at 40 out of 80. Additionally, Professor Kies ran a secondary test to determine that once an error was caught, how the grammar check proposed to fix it. Professor Kies found that each program offered differing ways of “fixing” his introduced errors, but across the board the suggestions were either stylistically too formal or were “flat-out wrong” as Einsohn previously warned. [iii]

Facing proof that Einsohn was correct, and grammar checker not only misses errors, but can also actually introduce them into a text, I wondered how often this fault in the program may have affected the work of the average student, writer, and even the average editor who continues to use a grammar checker, unquestioningly trusting in its so-called “expertise.” In this age of reliance on technology, what harm can come from trusting solely in a program that can only obey the rules set to it by a program manager? And who decides what rules are relevant enough to be included in the grammar check? Are the parameters set by a thorough study of the rules of grammar that are in current usage, or are they an accumulation of the program manager’s own preferences and partialities? At the time that this article is being posted I do have an email query sent to Microsoft’s general inbox to see about finding the answers to these and other questions, but so far I have not yet received a reply. However, I do feel that these issues need to be highlighted and properly addressed. As Professor Kies’ study has demonstrated, grammar check, through its incorrect suggestions designed to “fix” the writing of the user, is thus capable of changing the way a writer communicates with others. If the user is unaware that its suggestions are faulty, and blindly accepts the suggested changes, they may unknowingly be changing the entirety of the message they are attempting to convey to an audience.

So, with all the flaws and faults that grammar check has been proven to posses, one question remains – is there any value in using grammar check at all? While interviewing several of my friends and family – current students, teachers, and a professional editor included – to find out if they had known of grammar check’s off switch, I came across an interesting response from a friend who works as a corporate editor. Instead of shutting his program’s grammar check off completely, he told me that he preferred to use the customization option. Intrigued, I went back to the original pop-up window that I found originally in my Microsoft Word program regarding the options of grammar check. By digging deeper into the different settings I discovered that grammar check could be set up in several different writing styles – Casual, Standard, Formal, Technical and Custom – with each of these further broken down into 26 different highlighted rules such as “Capitalization,” “Punctuation,” or Subject-Verb Agreement” that grammar check would look for depending on which writing style was selected. (Just a FYI, “Standard” is set as the default for most programs and comes with about half the options pre-selected.) Investigating the “Custom” setting, I found that the program defaulted to selecting every option, but each one could be easily turned on or off and saved to any user’s specifications. While Einsohn may be correct that using this customization feature may not save an editor time while “checking the shortest of pieces,”[iv] I would argue that when attempting to edit a 50, 100, or even 300 page manuscript on a short deadline, a second set of “eyes” serving as a back up to the editor to check the consistency of capitalization, comma usage, or hyphenation placement could definitely prove useful. As the tools of publishing increasingly expand to include the technological, I believe it behooves any editor to not simply turn a tool off because it presents frustrations, but to find a way to turn on a more useful feature such as customization to make that tool the most efficient it can be for them.

Perhaps the reason that Einsohn takes such a harsh stance against the use of grammar check is because it violates one of her four commandments of copyediting, “Thou shalt not introduce an error into a text that is correct.”[v] But perhaps Einsohn, like me when I first began this paper, did not fully understand the potential behind grammar check. Perhaps she, like me, failed to look deeper to discover customization rather than deactivation because it was easier that way. And who is to blame for this? Is it Microsoft? Or is it perhaps each of ours, for blindly trusting in a machine to do a job like editing that at its core relies on human nuance and judgment? I suppose in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is what we do from here. As Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup state in their text, “The alternative to blind obedience is selective observance. [Y]ou have to decide which rules to observe and which to ignore.”[vi] I hope that this blog posting is a start. I hope that reading it has motivated you to go into your own word processing program and begin customizing the grammar check, so you can take charge of what exactly it does to your writing, as I plan to do. I hope that it doesn’t stop there, that you share what you now know about Word with others, as I plan to do. Because in the end I feel that an editor should never stop learning and evolving, just like the very language we so often are in charge of revising.

NOTES

[i] Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications Third Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 337.

[ii] Microsoft Support. “Frequently Asked Questions about Grammar Proofing in Word.” Last Modified January 24, 2007. https://support.microsoft.com/kb/290943/

[iii] Daniel Kies, “Evaluating Grammar Checkers: A Comparative Ten-Year Study.” Last Modified November 28, 2012. http://papyr.com/hypertextbooks/grammar/gramchek.htm

[iv] Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 337.

[v] Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 4.

[vi] Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup, Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace Eleventh Edition (Chicago: Pearson Education, Inc., 2014), 13.

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  1. Andrea,
    I so enjoyed reading your blog regarding the value of grammar check. Your arguments were very clearly defined and defended, and I felt the need to reflect on my own use of the tools provided by my word processor (MS Word). Before reading your blog, I was skeptical when the grammar check feature pointed out mistakes, as its findings were often incorrect. As you pointed out, I did not realize the grammar check could be customized. Though embedded rather deeply in the menu, I found a plethora of choices and enabled the ones most appropriate for my work.
    It’s ironic that I think of “tools” as items that will help me in my life: a hammer, screw driver, level, and ruler all help complete home projects. Similarly, my iPad is a tool to organize my schedule, social commitments, and contact information. Yet, when it comes to MS Word tools, I have not viewed them with the same respect as other tools, which have proven themselves reliable.
    Thank you for educating me on how to get the most of the tool set that accompanies word processors. Armed with more knowledge about how to use this tool, I am comfortable trusting it. With only one blue “squiggle” on the page (I asked MS Word to tell me when I use contractions), I feel confident in hitting the “send” button.

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  2. This is a most insightful topic and post. I, too, was unaware that the grammar check feature in Word can be turned off. That’s good to know, but I can’t ever see myself disabling this feature entirely. Even if Word often points out “errors” that are in fact correct (which is annoying, to be sure), I still take comfort in knowing that there’s a proverbial second set of eyes reviewing everything I write. Put another way, I’m willing to tolerate Word’s mistakes in order to catch some of my own mistakes.

    Like the writer, I was also unaware that the grammar check feature is customizable. I will probably explore this option at some point, but I can’t see myself relying on it too heavily. For example, I notice that it’s possible to have Word check for “unclear phrasing.” How confident am I that Word will truly catch all of the unclear phrasing in my writing? Not very. Plus, there’s the larger question of how Word determines that something is unclear in the first place. Is it possible that Word will identify a passage as unclear (when maybe it really isn’t) and offer up a suggested change that actually makes the passage even less clear than it was originally? I’d say it’s more than possible; it’s quite likely.

    In the end, and despite their many deficiencies, I’m glad these features and tools exist. I think we’re be better off regarding them as thought-provokers rather than being the ultimate authority when it comes to grammar. (Although I do extend my condolences to teachers, parents and others who have to explain to young and inexperienced writers why a tool that’s meant to provide guidance will often create confusion.)

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  3. This is phenomenal. I love the action steps you listed at the end– what can we now do with this information? I think you’ve given a great start. One of the questions impressed upon me when I’m thinking about this topic is: How will kids from low-income, inner-city schools, who may not have a strong handle on grammar, interact with grammar check? Will it help them, or will it actually worsen their grammar? The reason this is bothering me is because I recently spoke in one of St. Paul’s inner-city high schools to a class of graduating seniors. This particular class was created for students with low chances of graduating. Their freshman year, they begun with twenty-five students, and now, there are only ten. Afterward, one of the young, polite, male students was talking with his teacher, and I overheard him say, “I think I’m going to get into Madison. I was just sitting there the other day, and I started writing them a letter. It was so good. For real. I was talking about all these deep things, and I mean, it didn’t have good grammar or anything– I don’t know that stuff– but it was real good.” I immediately wondered how many inspiring, intelligent, and capable students are getting rejected from college– or maybe even not being considered– due to their lack of grammar and writing skills. Further, if one of the only resources available and accessible to them outside of school is Word’s grammar check, and it’s so flawed, where else should they turn for help? Should there be short grammar explanations that come along with word processing programs? Can we, as graduate students, volunteer to help these students write their college essays? I’m not sure if any word processing programs will start to include mini-, easily understandable, grammar explanations, but I think the more accurate and accessible resources we can provide, the better.

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    • In response to Victoria’s post: I am still grappling with this issue. However, I feel like if we look at different ways to work with technology, we can work with new ways to teach students. More classrooms are incorporating technology in their classrooms and kids today seem to be more tech savvy than I ever was growing up in the 90s, so it may work to incorporate lessons for students that involve working with technology. There remains the issue of demographics that do not have access to technology, but even if they have one desktop computer that has MicrosoftWord on it, a classroom can show students what to do with the resources they do have. Aside from that, one can only hope that students who are struggling have an educator in their corner helping them go through their writing and helping them improve.

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  4. I’ve always been between excitement about new technology and wanting to shun the idea that our society tries to fix things that are not broken. In this case, the technology seems to be making our communication more broken; however, it is sobering to read your proposed solutions that we work with technology to improve ourselves and our writing. Similar the ideas contained in the Anderson article we read for class, there is a human element to technology. This can be a bad thing if we consider that there are people behind the MicrosoftWord grammar checker making poor decisions, but it is also a good thing when there are people who are willing to stand with technology and not behind it in order to find new ways to complete tasks such as checking grammar.

    The tough idea for me to address still is who should be working with technology: average students, editors, etc.? I was a writing tutor for a few years in college and almost every time a student said, “But Word told me this was wrong,” I would laugh and reply, “Just ignore it. Word is stupid.” While your research supports this assertion in terms of the failures of Word’s grammar checker, it is hard to ignore a piece of technology that has been given to us with the idea that we use it to make our lives easier, especially since it is a piece of technology we use almost every day. Just like a conflict you have with a roommate, you can’t just ignore it; you need to face whatever issues there may be and try to resolve them. It may not be a total solution, but it seems effective and hopeful for the moment to turn to MicrosoftWord and say, “I’m sorry for calling you stupid. Let’s work together on making this the best paper ever.” Whether or not this will work for everyone, I don’t know. But it seems to be a good start to think about the potential technology can hold.

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  5. Throughout your entire blog post—which is awesome—I couldn’t help realize that editors share the same hat as the grammar checker. You asked some really wonderful questions about the point of electronic grammar checkers, suggesting that the checkers themselves may create even more errors in a text; “That programs come with errors.” It also may change the way the writer is trying to communicate. So this had me realizing, “wow, editors could be doing the exact same thing as these electronic devices.” For example, when we change nominalizations to simpler sentences, we are changing the voice of the writer. Although we are changing it to a form that actually makes sense (to the editor), the writers voice is lost and you can hear the voice of the editor. When are we supposed to limit ourselves? How far is too far as an editor?

    Similarly, just like the grammar-check program is created and installed by a program manager, editors are also “programmed” under their publishing houses. We are taught to edit in a particular way, changing voice and adding/deleting language to make it “more clear.” However, how do we know that the clarity we are providing is clear for everyone? I’m learning more and more how this subjective world works, and quite frankly it freaks me out. I’m realizing that there aren’t clear answers to language, or life for that matter. Even the technology we use is created by someone, and that someone has a subjective point of view on how the piece of technology should work.

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  6. Thanks for a well-researched, interesting post, Andrea! The question of whether grammar check can be a useful tool to editors is particularly interesting. Of course, there are probably very few professional editors who would automatically assume that grammar check is correct; editors would likely either already know the correct grammatical form, or they would use a handbook or other tool to double-check. Assuming that the editor is working as carefully and meticulously as he or she ought to in the profession, how many mistakes could grammar check identify that a trained editor would have otherwise missed? Hopefully, there are not many. But surely even a meticulous editor is bound to miss an occasional error, so perhaps it is worthwhile to refrain from turning off grammar check, “just in case.”
    It is really thought-provoking to consider how differently various groups of people might interact with grammar checker. For example, juxtapose a professional editor with an average high school student. For the editor, grammar check might prove virtually useless and perhaps even annoying (in the event that it suggests incorrect revisions or highlights a correct sentence as incorrect). Editors might find grammar check generally unreliable (Andrea, you found some useful data proving this unreliability!), but a useful tool for catching basic errors. On the other hand, a high school student may rely too heavily on this tool and accept any and all changes that it suggests. In this case, it’s arguable that the disadvantages of grammar check outweigh the benefits; if users rely on the program more than they rely on their own knowledge, they are unlikely to learn to improve their own grammar, and they risk accepting as many incorrect changes as correct ones. Fiction authors are another interesting group to consider; perhaps grammar check can become annoying when authors try to write characters who speak in slang or dialects that grammar check does not understand. But if the writer disables grammar check altogether, how much more carefully will he or she have to proofread to make sure that no typographical grammatical errors have snuck into the text?

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  7. Like others have already commented, I was astounded when I learned that you could turn grammar checker off in Word, and even more blown away by the fact that it is actually a horrible system to check your work. And I LOVED the note about how the passage on Microsoft’s home page was rife with grammatical errors according to its own system. Your question of whether or not the faults in the program could have affected the work of a student, writer, or editor was the one that caught my attention. There have been many times over the years where I have thought that my writing was correct but Word marked it with its lovely red squiggles, and so I changed what I had to appease the program. Now that we live in this world of technology that auto-corrects every sentence that we type, how can we know what are legitimate rules and what are just the preferences of those who created the program? Young writers who are growing up using Word and texting constantly are never going to know if they are right or not. They will automatically conform to what these ‘robots’ are telling them to correct and so we will be filtered into this world where there are strict language rules that you must follow if you don’t want to have red underlines all over your work. The reason that I find this disappointing and almost heartbreaking is that I have always seen writing as a form of personal expression. Like a work of art or a piece of music, written text can be a way to take a glimpse into the authors mind and soul, a way to determine what kind of person they are and how they view the world. Obviously there is no way to know if these limitations and parameters have influenced a change in anyones writing style or the message that an individual attempted to convey, but I’m willing to bet that if we were still using typewriters to complete our assignments our writing styles would all be different. Not completely, but there would be much less uniformity and a little more unconstrained voices out there. After all, Word is not completely changing what we write, it’s just nudging us all a little closer together so that our individuality in writing is slightly obscured.

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  8. Andrea, I found your blog post very eye-opening and enlightening. Although I always take each “suggestion” from the Microsoft Word grammar check tool with trepidation, I did not know that there was research behind my suspicions. I spent some time looking at the research you discussed by Daniel Kies, and was surprised by his statements. He suggests that “Under Windows, Microsoft’s Word has been severely broken ever since the Word 97 version. No newer version of the program could find any of the errors in the twenty sentences since Word 97.” How can this be? It seems shocking that almost 10 years have gone by, and no one has addressed this issue.

    Relying on any one tool is dangerous for people in most fields. Just like a researcher who could not use only one source, the editor who trusts Microsoft grammar check tool completely, risks missing multiple styles and options to language. In addition, I agree with your statement that Einsohn perhaps did not know about all the options for customizing the tool before suggesting its complete deactivation. I like the term “selective observance,” you refer to. This term seems to be a logical approach instead of completely discounting a tool that, although has its flaws, can help an editor catch something that could have been missed.

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  9. Andrea,
    I loved your suggestion to “turn on a more useful feature” of the grammar checker rather than blindly following its supposed expertise. The grammar checker was most likely created to eliminate the tedious task of reviewing every comma, semicolon, etc. that was placed within a text. But you’re post highlights the fascinating way in which this tool, originally meant to help the public avoid confronting grammar, is now forcing them to address not only their own grammatical concerns but also the supposed grammatical concerns proposed by the grammar checker. I think that what you’ve presented supports the claim that technology is still a human-based endeavor. Even though the grammar checker may catch misspelled words or incomplete sentences (fingers-crossed…), there is still a need for writers to understand how grammar can help them convey their ideas.
    Your paragraph regarding who or what decides which grammatical rules to implement is fascinating. English grammar is such a fluid system that changes and evolves based on the context in which you’re writing. Certainly there is no “context customization” option in Word, so I, along with you, wonder who decides which rules are relevant. It’s interesting to note that older versions of Word are better at grammar checking than the newer versions. Perhaps this reveals Word adopting a more “fluid” understanding of grammar as the years went by? Recognizing, for example, that some sentence fragments can be used stylistically? Or maybe there was just a change in management…
    Thanks for your thoughts!

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