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Grammar checkers helpful or harmful?

By Russell Shaw, Gannett News Service

Susan Rooks has made limited use of grammar-checking features built into word-processing programs such as Microsoft Word and Corel's WordPerfect.

"Given that (a grammar checker is) wrong more often than it's right, the average person will be horribly served by it," said Rooks, who hails from North Easton, Mass.

Rooks is not a linguistic rebel. In fact, she is known on the Web as "The Grammar Lady." A member of the Society of Professional Communicators, Rooks' business, The Grammar Goddess (www.grammargoddess.com), offers on-site grammar seminars for business-people around the world.

You may be familiar with grammar checkers. In Microsoft Word, for example, you'll find this function in the Tools menu. Click on "Spelling and Grammar," and Word will begin examining the document you currently have open. If it finds a sentence fragment, or it thinks you are not using a verb properly, it will highlight the offensive section and give you the chance to change it to proper usage. WordPerfect's Grammatik utility is bundled with most versions of the program and works in a similar manner.

For writers and editors, the main question seems to be whether these tools offer needed discipline or whether they constrict style and voice. Writing teachers, members of a prt about grammar-checking tools," said Dene Grigar, an assistant professor of English at Texas Women's University in Dallas. Grigar was chairperson of the Computers And Writing Online 2002 Conference, held over the Internet in May.

"On the one hand, these tools help to clear up errors that students don't mean to make," Grigar said. "Grammar checkers can also intimidate some students who have not developed a personal style (or voice) or do not have confidence in their writing."

An even bigger issue for writing teachers: not only do software grammar checkers crimp creativity, but their overuse can be a crutch for students who never learned good grammar habits.

"Grammar checkers are expert systems, not expert writers," said Grigar. "Students can receive assistance with issues like subject-verb agreement, use of the passive voice, proper use of articles, and some comma and other punctuation problems. Yet even with this help, the information provided is so easy and transparent that students do not think they need to spend time thinking about the errors they have made."

Reservations about grammar checkers are not a universal sentiment in the writing education community. There is another school of thought that maintains that grammar is the foundation of language, and as limited as it is, grammar-checking software can only aid the cause of good writing.

Don Ranly defends grammar checkers as a front-line defense against poor grammar. Ranly brings some impressive credentials to his arguments. He's a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, and is on the editorial board of Writer's Digest, a popular monthly magazine for writers of all types and styles.

"The grammar checker is simply that — it makes you check the sentence," said Ranly. "Enough said. I'm amazed at how often I end up changing something. That's damned useful."

Ranly said he has little tolerance for those wordsmiths who view their expressiveness as untouchable by grammar-checking software.

Tips for using a grammar checker

If you find your grammar checker too constrictive, there are things you can do. In Microsoft Word, for example, the Spelling & Grammar Options box (reached from the Tools menu) allows you to check grammar and style, or grammar only. And once the grammar checker starts to examine your document, you can disable the feature entirely by unchecking the "Check grammar" box in the "Spelling and Grammar" box.

 

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