As we discussed in yesterday’s post about using a thesaurus, technology can be a valuable tool in helping your writing. However, a little bit goes a long way. Like all tools, technological writing aids can harm as much as they can help and that’s absolutely true of grammar checking software.Just as the thesaurus [Shift F7] in Microsoft Word is but a keystroke away, so too is a grammar checker [F7], which is built into the spell check function (use the Tools > Options menu to change the settings) — great tips on using MS Word can be found on Richard Koman’s Word Smith blog.
The grammar check will spot common incorrect usage (e.g., your v. you’re) and common foibles such as run-on sentences, sentence fragments, and capitalization for proper nouns. You can also set it to catch style related writing standards such serial commas, interior and exterior punctuation, and the number of spaces between sentences.
However, even the best grammar check software isn’t infallible. It won’t catch some errors and it will also produce false positives telling you that grammatically correct writing needs fixing — not a good thing for your confidence. Sandeep Krishnamurthy, an associate professor at the University of Washington has been lobbying Microsoft to improve its grammar checker and has myriad examples of flaws in the program available on this Web site.
For example, the MS Word grammar check found no issues with the following passage included in Krishnamurthy’s research:
Deer stew dents
To questions four you. Do you know how too use the spell checker on the computer?
Can you sea sum spelling mistakes inn this?
The spellchecker on my computer could knot fine any problems – awl my words were correct. The grammar checker all so said my grandma was perfect.
Although it’s always wise to run the grammar check function on your writing, it shouldn’t be your only tool. A great resource for quick grammar questions is Diana Hacker’s “A Pocket Style Manual.” There’s one sitting on my desk right now and it paid for itself years ago. There’s also a companion site for the book that includes some grammar tips and exercises.