The Problem with Grammar Check
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.
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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