Warning: Microsoft Did Not Invent Grammar!

By Sharon

Most people who advise on writing tell you to check the spelling and grammar on your work. This is good advice.

However, the trouble is that the tools we often use just aren’t up to the job. Many of us use Microsoft Word for writing, and its built-in spelling and grammar checker for checking our work.

In general, I don’t have an issue with the spell checker, though mine occasionally has a problem with the correct spelling of liaison. However, the MS Word grammar checker leaves a lot to be desired.

Grammar Checker Failings

I’m not the only one to feel this way. In fact, people have been complaining about it for years. Neurogrammar, which is admittedly biased, compares the results from its own grammar checker and Word. Ignore that if you want, but the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which presumably has no ax to grind, also wrote a piece on the failings of Word’s grammar checker.

These match my own experience with the tool. Generally, I write grammatically correct British English, but it only takes one typo to confuse the tool. The grammar checker will remind me about every instance of using passive sentences, but has some strange attitudes to noun and verb agreements.

Where Did It Go Wrong?

Proper names that end in an ‘s’ also confuse the grammar checker, and that’s not all. The University of Washington has some demos of where the grammar checker went wrong. (Check out the letter from Karen for a laugh.)

The study concluded that the grammar check worked better for good writers than for those who needed a lot of help. So, what’s a poor writer to do? The answer is to get some grammar help from different sources, and to proofread. Once you accept that the MS Word grammar checker can get it wrong, it’s amazing how many mistakes you will spot.

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32 Responses to “Warning: Microsoft Did Not Invent Grammar!”

  • Erica

    Grammar checker is worse than useless; it’s malicious. And that’s true for American English users as well. It’s not about British versus American (though I’m sure it flags legitimate British uses of grammar that are not common in the US). It flags plenty of American English uses too.

    It has no sense of how to use apostrophes, for instance. And it sometimes tells me to invert articles so they would appear after a noun. M dashes throw it off completely (it seems to think that you should have a period after an m dash that is used inside quotes to indicate truncated speech).

    I just turn it off. I worry about people who really don’t know the basics of English grammar. It seems pretty darned useless, because the people who need it the most are the ones who won’t be able to tell when it gives them terrible advice.

    I’m not nuts about spell checker either. It flags perfectly good English words as non words, forcing me to do a ‘sanity check’ to see if I’m really spelling them right. Adit, grimoire, rictus, weal, longsword and surcoat are just a few.

    At least you can add words to your own custom dictionary.

  • AltMichael

    @Bill

    All of those errors you mentioned are also errors in American English. You’d have a word like color/colour to see if your spelling and grammar checkers were intended for English.

    Proofreading your own writing is inherently error prone, because you already know what you meant to say, so your mind will often auto-correct it. I’m not saying don’t do it, it’s just that you need several different methods.

    Try text-to-speech.

    I think the solution for homonyms is a special text-to-speech preprocessor that changes homophonous words to words of the same syntactic and semantic category, expands contractions, uses synonyms, and exaggerates pronunciations.

    For example,
    allowed/aloud => permitted / audibly
    alter/altar => change / voodoo table
    your/you’re => my / you are
    its/it’s => my / it is
    our/hour => his and mine / minute

    No, don’t worry about “minute.” The translator chose it, so it knows it’s supposed to be MINN-utt and not my-NYUT.

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