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November 23, 2010  |  Grammar checker FTW  |  3884 hit(s)

You can hardly swing a dead linguist without getting opinions -- negative ones, of course -- about the quality of advice offered by spelling and grammar checking in Microsoft Word. Here's a sample from Geoff Pullum:
But she is wise to the extraordinarily bad advice Word gives on spelling and grammar, and firmly resisted what could have been one of the worst cupertinos in the history of philosophy.
The issue with linguists (and editors) and Microsoft Word is that they focus on what we in our business call "edge cases." Submit to Word a term that's been so misspelled that it's not clear what was intended, or submit a particularly tricky grammar issue to it, and it might respond with an incorrect suggestion. So obviously the tool is useless. (Or, um, "extraordinarily bad.") The fact that Word catches 98+ percent of the bad spellings and grammar issues[1] that it encounters is never remarked on. It's not very interesting when a tool just does what it's supposed to do.

Me, I am highly dependent on these tools because in fact they do find all sorts of junk. (More spelling errors than grammar errors, but some of each.) And sure, it isn't always right, but that's why there's an editor. (Me.) Even so, it impressed me today. Here's something I wrote; for the highlighted word, do you know whether it's right?
When I get the nod from Bill, or from whoever he delegates the decision to, I’ll make the updates.

Word did. :-)

I will admit that it isn't always (as my wife likes to say) buttercups and roses. Here's a grammar-checker boo-boo from the Fail blog:

I verified this in Microsoft Word 2010. Left as an exercise to the reader, I guess, is to try to figure out what Word was thinking.

[1] All statistics presented here are works of fiction and are provided for entertainment purposes only.

Marc Achtelig   24 Nov 10 - 6:55 AM

I've recently tested various grammar checkers, both English and German ones. (Some of the better ones are listed here: http://www.indoition.com/language-terminology-tools-technical-writing.htm). As a matter of fact, the best one that could find for the English language actually IS Microsoft Word. It returns better results than even much more expensive specialized solutions. For the German language (and probably for other languages as well), things are a bit different. For German, Word is still acceptable, but DUDEN Korrektor, which is available as a plugin for Word, OpenOffice, and FrameMaker is definitely superior.

mike   24 Nov 10 - 12:24 PM

@Marc -- awesome, thanks for the link. Do you have a writeup anywhere of how the testing was done? Sounds like a very interesting project.

Brian   24 Nov 10 - 6:01 PM

I admit that turning off the grammar checker is the first thing I do when I install a new copy of Word -- it's not that it's bad, exactly, it's just that grammar is part of my job. Thanks, Word, but I got this covered. (Since I haven't used the grammar checker since, oh, Word 97, most likely, I don't know how it's improved over the years.)

Confession time, though: I like Word's spell-checker, and I always have. To my mind, spelling isn't a requirement to be a good editor; it's just a mechanical aspect of the job, which can be done by a machine, if that machine is used by a human with good judgment. It's the same as an engineer using a pocket calculator to do basic arithmetic -- nobody thinks that the engineer couldn't do the basic math, if he needed to, but the calculator is faster and more accurate. It's a tool, which allows the engineer to concentrate on more important things. The spell-checker is the same thing for an editor -- it handles one of the tedious aspects of the job, so that I can worry about the big stuff.

Is there a contradiction in liking the spell-checker but not the grammar-checker? Maybe, but I'm willing to live with that.