JANUARY 1999

Using the Grammar Check

Your computer word processing programme probably contains a "Grammar Check" function designed to help you write more clearly. With each new program version, Grammar Checks are becoming more refined.

Will they ever become sensitive enough to be truly useful? At the very least, experimenting with some of the latest versions is a good way to look at your writing in a new light.
How many hours a day do you spend in front of your computer screen? Do you think of it as a trusted colleague or even a friend? Has it begun to influence the way you work, think and write? Without a doubt, the temperament of the word processor is leaving its mark on writers around the world. Although these functions are intended as tools for the users to control (they are listed under the "Tools" menu, after all), it is tempting to surrender to their hypnotic glow and accept all suggestions they make. However, a grammar check on this article suggests using the verb "do" in the first sentence of this paragraph! Don't blame the program for trying to apply some simplified rules to an area of great complexity. It's only trying to help.

Consider the Spelling Check, for example. Who would dare to argue with it? It is much easier to just accept the preferences it suggests. Naturally, the programmers occasionally had to chose one of various accepted spelling forms, and this can lead to some surprises. My computer, for example, insists on hyphenating the word "world-wide" while four different dictionaries of English list it as one word.

That user-friendly charm
The Grammar Check function appears to have some quirks of its own: a phobia of the passive voice, extreme sensitivity to gender-specific expressions (one version will even call the word "women" into question, suggesting "human beings" instead) and a very short attention span (considering a basic compound sentence linked with the conjunction "but" to be "run on").

The various programmes have distinct personalities. The Macintosh, for example, ever the user-friendly and congenial one, has the most diplomatic grammar check. In WordPerfect 5.1 for Mac, suggestions are made with the greatest of care: "Try to use this word sparingly," or my favourite, "Usually a paragraph should have more than one sentence." Word 6 for Windows 95 also takes a gentle approach, "This does not seem to be a complete sentence," while Word 97 has dispensed with the diplomacy in favour of displaying more alternatives.

What can we learn from the Grammar Check? If we ignore the nonsensical suggestions, it does surprisingly well in certain complex areas. One aspect that stands out is the way the function treats the distinction between the relative pronouns "that" and "which".
A perfectly good text written by a native English speaker is bound to come out with many of the "thats" changed to "whichs". Perhaps because "that" is more frequently used in speech, many people use "that" in writing in cases where the computer would disagree. The Word 97 check makes it clear that the choice is yours.

Monosyllabic

One of the more entertaining options on the Grammar Check is the "Readability score", defined in the "Help" section as follows: When Word finishes checking spelling and grammar, it can display information about the reading level of the document. Each readability score bases its rating on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. The Flesh Reading Ease score rates text on a 100 point scale. The Flesh-Kincaid Grade level score rates text on a us grade-school level. For example, a score of 8.0 means that an eighth grader (about 13 years old, ed.) can understand the document. The frequency with which the passive voice is used for verbs is also counted. The formula sounds somewhat artificial but it effectively provides a rough idea of the relative style of a text.

Checking a sample of different texts showed that a press release for a prestigious insurance company rates quite low on the readability scale, and apparently would not have been understood by a 16-year-old. Perhaps this was due to the whopping 38% of the verbs being in the passive voice. The rating for this article, by the way, is within the recommended range for "most standard documents". By contrast, a letter I wrote to a childhood friend scored 0% on passive voice and 81% on overall ease. Much to my amusement, the writing level was rated as grade 5.2. How little things have changed between us since the age of nine! Use the Grammar Check, and see yourself as your computer sees you.

Kate Grady