The Problem with Grammar Check

By Mark Nichol

A couple of years ago, a visitor to this site posted a comment asking for help. In a Word document, this person had written the sentence “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.” Word’s grammar check admonished the writer to insert a semicolon in place of the comma following them.

What?

Errant nonsense, and puzzling advice, at that. One respondent erroneously agreed with Bill Gates, while two people associated with this site validated the original writer’s reluctance to follow Word’s word. But they didn’t explain why the grammar check had recommended this faulty course of action. I didn’t understand it, either, but then I looked a little closer.

As another poster remarked, a human editor trumps a computer-generated one. Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess, but I doubt they’ll ever beat people at editing. Why? They can compute, but they can’t think. Here’s where Word went wrong:

It assumed that the phrase “in this poem and without emphasis on them” was a compound phrase with the same structure as “on this page and on the next,” for example, and that this sentence could end with this phrase.

If that were true, “this poem has little to no meaning” would be an independent clause that could stand on its own. But because the computer misread the context, it did not admonish the writer to correct a real error: A comma should follow the first instance of poem.

The correct form of the sentence is “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem, and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.” (I also agree with the poster who pointed out that the phrase at the end of the sentence is more idiomatically correct rendered as “little or no meaning.”)

In this sentence “this poem has little to no meaning” is not an independent clause, but it is part of one: “without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning” could stand as a separate sentence, so it should be preceded by a comma and the conjunction and.”

The moral of the story? Word’s grammar check, like its spell-check function, can be helpful, but it can also misinterpret your intent as a writer. As the sage says, “Trust, but verify.”

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22 Responses to “The Problem with Grammar Check”

  • Roger Whitehead

    > Errant nonsense

    Arrant nonsense, surely?

    Roger

  • Ellen Feld

    I think the problem with Word’s suggestion resulted because of the missing comma in the original sentence. There should be a comma after the first occurrence of the word “poem” (as Mark suggests):

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    The missing comma is necessary according to the basic rule: Use a comma plus a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses.

    Technically, the sentence could have been grammatically correct this way:

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem and without emphasis on them; this poem has little to no meaning.”

    But when Mark added the necessary comma, the sentence made sense in the way the writer likely intended it to:

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem, and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    The words “this poem has little to no meaning” do make an independent clause, but the clause’s meaning is not independent of what precedes it.

    Mark highlights something important. It’s easy to second-guess ourselves when a computer tells us we’ve made a mistake. The computer is often right, but it’s important for writers to use their human brains to analyze grammar, logic, and meaning.

    Thanks!

    –Ellen

  • Ellen Feld

    Roger, why “arrant” instead of “errant”? Either works?

    –Ellen

  • Rebecca

    Use Word’s ‘speller’ but proofread your work. You may have typed ‘their’ but meant to use ‘there’ instead. Word won’t catch this mistake. Proofreading is a must.

  • Roger Whitehead

    > Roger, why “arrant” instead of “errant”? Either works?

    Perhaps it’s a British/US thing but the former is the norm here. The OED says this in the etymological note for “arrant”

    “A variant of errant, ‘wandering, vagrant, vagabond,’ which from its frequent use in such expressions as arrant thief, became an intensive, ‘thorough, notorious, downright…’”

    I think that fits your context better.

    Roger

  • Roger Whitehead

    > I think that fits your context better.

    Sorry. “…the context”.

  • Tony Hearn

    No, Ellen, Mark meant ‘arrant’.

    Am I the only one that thinks the quoted sentence should be punctuated: ‘“The nouns and verbs are the main content-words in this poem and without emphasis on them this poem has little to no meaning”’?

    I would hyphenate the noun compound ‘content-words’ in accordance with a rule on hyphenation discussed elsewhere on this site. But beyond that the sentence has two co-ordinating clauses joined by ‘and’. The phrase ‘without emphasis on them’ is not parenthetical (and were it so it would need two commas), but is intrinsic to the clause. Hence no comma is needed.

    What many people have difficulty grasping (or remembering) is that commas are sense delimiters, not pause indicators. Their function is syntactical, not oratorical.

  • Michele Cooper

    Since I hyperventilate when a personal prounoun is used incorrectly (them), and to simplify the sentence, I would fix it like this: The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem; without these words, this poem has little or no meaning.

  • Roger Whitehead

    Alternatively: “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem; without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    Or make it into two sentences.

    Roger

  • John

    How about punctuating this:

    Suzy although Mary had had had had had had had had had had had the examiners approval

    Sorry, corny and old; you’ve probably seen it before.

  • Maeve

    A note on “arrant” vs “errant:
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/a-knight-errant-and-an-arrant-knave/

  • Mark Nichol

    Roger:

    Don’t call me Surely.

    Yes, arrant nonsense, indeed. Thank you for the correction of my errant spelling. As Maeve notes, the confusion between these two words, one a variant of the other, has been discussed on this site.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tony:

    First, “content words” needs no hyphenation. This kind of connection was once common in both British English and its daughter dialect spoken in the United States but is now obsolete on both sides of the Pond.

    Second, the sample sentence, deprived of punctuation — notwithstanding your valid argument about the role of commas — is rather breathless. “Without emphasis on them” is not a parenthetical phrase, but though I am very fit, I certainly appreciate the chance to catch my breath.

    At the very least, the first instance of poem should be followed by a comma, which, along with the conjunction and, also signals the option of dividing the sentence into two.

  • Peter

    I’ll half-agree with Tony: I’d add the comma after ‘poem’, but delete the one after ‘them’. I wouldn’t hyphenate ‘content-words’, myself, but concede it might be a good idea; and “obsolete” so often just means “more educated” 🙂

  • Trevor

    As ever, simplify the problem in order to solve it. In this case, split the sentence into two sentences that say the same thing.

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem. Without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    All the “and” is doing is joining the two separate sentences by replacing the period.

    The correct grammar for the sentence, therefore, is: “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    If the result is ambiguous or confusing, keep the two parts as separate sentences rather than trying to invent non-existent English grammar rules.

    Also, Tony Hearn, persons are “who”, not “that”.

  • Shanker

    I’ve a question on the construction of the sentence itself. Is the sentence, “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem, and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”, itself grammatically correct? The phrase ‘and without emphasis on them’ is supposed to be parenthetic here that could be removed without affectiving the meaning of the sentence – as per punctuation rules. But, here the sentence looses its meaning if you do that!

    My question is – Can we write paranthetic sentences where the parenthetic expression can not be removed?

  • Mark Nichol

    Trevor:

    “If the result is ambiguous or confusing, keep the two parts as separate sentences rather than trying to invent non-existent English grammar rules.”

    Three equally correct solutions have been offered here:

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem, and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem; without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem. Without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”

    No nonexistent rules have been created in the writing of this blog or the comments. Because in and without, both prepositions, appear in parallel, the sentence is easily misread (and, as I mentioned before, as is, it is a rather breathless statement). No misreading, however, is likely when a comma is inserted after poem.

  • Mark Nichol

    Shanker:

    “I’ve a question on the construction of the sentence itself. Is the sentence, “The nouns and verbs are the main content words in this poem, and without emphasis on them, this poem has little to no meaning.”, itself grammatically correct? The phrase ‘and without emphasis on them’ is supposed to be parenthetic here that could be removed without affectiving the meaning of the sentence – as per punctuation rules. But, here the sentence looses its meaning if you do that!

    “My question is – Can we write paranthetic sentences where the parenthetic expression can not be removed?”

    As Tony correctly pointed out, as this sentence is constructed, “without emphasis on them” is not a parenthetical phrase, nor is “and without emphasis on them.”

    This sentence is a good example of a test case. If a sentence’s meaning changes when what appears to be a parenthetical phrase is excised, then it’s not really a parenthetical phrase. It’s merely a modifying phrase.

  • Rob Poole

    “Computers may be able to defeat humans at chess, but I doubt they’ll ever beat people at editing. Why? They can compute, but they can’t think.”

    Maybe it would be best to leave the problems of philosophy and computer science to philosophers and computer scientists? This is a statement that may be true today (though as someone knowledgeable in the state of the art, I’d argue that there have been successes in solving many machine cognition problems), but it won’t be true forever.

    Besides, automated proof engines and other machine reasoning techniques can be brought to bear on the problem of grammar checkers right now. The grammar checking engine in Word is poor, and has known deficits that have already been addressed in other products; the problem is that you get Word’s grammar check for free whenever you get a copy of Word or Office, whereas other products require separate purchase. As a result, hardly anyone is familiar with the alternatives, and these alternatives then drop off the market for lack of sales.

  • Charity

    John:

    Suzy, although Mary had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had the examiners approval.

    Suzy and Mary are taking a test. The question that they are answering pertains to the use of “had” versus “had had.” Suzy got it right, and Mary got it wrong. 🙂

  • Charity

    Actually, I guess I should have been more clear… They are not taking the test now, of course. They have already taken it.

  • Becky the Floridian

    That was great Suzy. I was really puzzled with your comment until you punctuated it. Thank you for the exercise.

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