Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Should Students Use Word’s Spellchecker and Grammar Checker?

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Publisher, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

I’m old enough to have learned to type on a typewriter, not a word processor. Personal computers arrived as I was leaving college; I got my first Macintosh my senior year. Oh, the glory! Saving! Cutting and pasting! Spellcheck! Wonderful tools.

Of course, like all wonderful tools, these need to be used with some care; and there are other tools available to writers that are not wonderful at all.

A spellchecker is a writer’s friend. It catches your typing mistakes as well as the mistakes you make because you honestly don’t know how to spell a word. It can’t catch everything – if you mean you’re but write your, the mistake will not be fixed. To find that kind of mistake, you still need a good understanding of English, and to reread your papers carefully to make sure you wrote what you meant.

Still, though, spellcheckers catch a lot. I advise students to spellcheck every paper before turning it in; I also advise them to spellcheck emails sent to professors, staff, supervisors, coworkers, clients – in short, anyone with whom they have a formal relationship.

The grammar checker, though … ah, that is another story. It would be wonderful, I know, to have an automated way to fix your grammar, or even just to point out where things were wrong. And who knows, maybe someday we’ll get one. But we don’t have it yet. The grammar checker is one tool I advise students not to use. Ever. And I’m going to show you why.

The examples in this column, all screen shots from my grammar checker, come from novels written by Russell Blake, a well-known writer of thrillers, mysteries, and suspense novels. He’s a native English speaker and a good writer. Like most professional writers, after carefully checking his own work (he does three complete drafts on his own), he sends the manuscript to an editor (me).

I do some light fact-checking (if a man runs into the subway in Prague at 4:00 am to escape an assassin, I check to make sure that the subway is open and running then), I watch for words used too often, I make sure the love interest’s eye color doesn’t change between chapters, I make sure phrases in a foreign language and international place names are spelled correctly. And I check his grammar, for both accuracy and variety.

You might be wondering why, if I think the grammar checker is so bad, I use it myself. Well, one thing it does catch is extra spaces between words or sentences. While these aren’t so noticeable in a term paper, they’ll mess up the look of an ebook.

But one thing the grammar checker won’t do is correctly is check your grammar.

Here’s why. The grammar checker is programmed to check certain things – subject/verb agreement, pronoun use, hyphenation, commonly confused words, and so on. But while those are problematic areas, English is simply too complex for the program to accurately catch mistakes.

In addition, weirdly, it will flag every use of the passive, or at least what it thinks is the passive, and suggest rewording it to the active voice. But there is nothing wrong with the passive used appropriately! Of course, you don’t want to use the passive inappropriately, but you don’t want to use the active voice inappropriately either. The grammar checker won’t help you with that. Instead, it will make the writer feel insecure about perfectly reasonable sentences, and suggest rewordings that are worse. For example:

Sentence that is better in the passive

* * *

Let’s have a look at some the other areas.

Subject-verb agreement is something that most English language learners struggle with; and Word is struggling right along with them.

A guy … isn’t. The sentence is correct.

* * *

“near” here isn’t a verb–it’s a preposition!

* * *

How about pronoun use? Again, we have problems. The grammar checker will for some reason flag every reflexive pronoun and suggest you use an object pronoun. It also tends to suggest that most uses of them should really be his or her. Regardless of how you feel about ‘singular they’, sometimes them really does refer to several people!

Using “him” here would make it sound like a second person.

* * *

“them” refers to several people here. It’s correct.

* * *

The grammar checker has certain pairs of words programmed into it to flag as commonly confused. Yet it often suggests you change the correct choice to the incorrect choice:

The past tense of “pry” is indeed “pried.”

* * *

“procede” means to continue. “precede” means to come before. “proceeded” is correct here.

* * *

We want the preposition “of” here, not the auxiliary “have.”

* * *

In particular, it struggles with they’re, their, and there, with hilarious results:

Um…

* * *

Uh…

* * *

No comment!

* * *

Have a look at the suggestions for rewording here, from what the grammar checked has (incorrectly) identified as a problem with conjunction use:

Not every “neither” is part of a “neither / nor” construction.

* * *

And so on. If you’re already adept at English grammar, you can easily spot the mistakes the grammar checker is making and ignore them. But for someone learning English, it’s terribly confusing. The learner can see that the category chosen is indeed problematic; but should the grammar checker’s suggestion be trusted or not? For any learner below C1 level, the grammar checker will either slow them down or, worse, guide them into making mistakes they wouldn’t have otherwise.

If you’re working with students who are word-processing papers or documents or correspondence, talk to them about the problems with using the grammar checker. I recommend that students turn off the feature on Word that checks grammar as they type, for example, because the wiggly green lines underneath parts of the sentence can be very distracting—especially when they’re wrong.

Show students some examples from the grammar checker (you’re welcome to use the ones in this column) and discuss why what’s shown as incorrect really isn’t. If you have the time to build a longer lesson, take a student’s paper and run it through the grammar checker. Screenshot examples of things both correctly and incorrectly flagged, and then discuss them with the class. If you have a student’s permission and the appropriate equipment, you could even do this in class by projecting the paper on a screen and running the grammar check while the class watches. Discuss together everything that it catches.

Students should absolutely check their writing for grammatical errors, and they can make use of peer editing and a teacher’s advice, but they can’t rely on an automated tool.

* * *

Thanks to Russell Blake for giving me permission to use these screenshots. Find information about Russell and his books, which are full of correct yet interesting sentences, at http://russellblake.com/.

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