The Grammar Checker

I just got through checking the grammar on a science-fiction novelette which I have decided is finished, at least to the point of submitting it to a magazine for publication.  I use Microsoft Word, probably the most common word processor in the US, and I must say I was a little surprised by the results of the Grammar Check.  The checker–to be distinguished from the Spell Checker which works quite well–gave me some really odd and unusual suggestions for correcting grammar in the piece.  The story, which has slightly over 22,000 words, took about ten minutes to scan, mainly because the checker stopped at so many places where the story didn’t need changing.  For example:

The most common “error” the Grammar Checker found–by far the most common–was a sentence fragment.  Perhaps 90% of the “errors” were this type.  Now that may sound correct, but so much of the way people talk and write is in sentence fragments.  For example, where I had a young person yell, “Daddy!” the Grammar Checker flagged it and suggested I revise it.  Revise it?  How?  In the context of the story, that was an appropriate thing for a young boy to yell.  Apparently the Grammar Checker is programed to require a subject and a verb in all sentences.  So, every sentence must contain at least two words.  That doesn’t always work, though.  Dialogue is frequently in fragments, and a Grammar Checker should be able to filter them out.  Might be a very difficult computer programming problem, though, for a computer to get every little, insignificant, subtle nuance of the English language correct.

Other grammar “mistakes” the Checker made were, and this is just a partial list, incorrectly suggesting a semicolon where a comma was, in fact, needed; a weird “number agreement” where it flagged an adjective (?); an incorrect “your/you’re” construction; an incorrect “that/which” usage; flagging a questionable subject-verb agreement that was actually correct; and even once not flagging an obvious grammar mistake.

After I completed scanning the story, the checker came up with a list of figures about the document, such as the number of words, the number of sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, and, most significant, the percentage of passive voice construction in the story.  In my story, the passive was listed at 2%, but I find myself wondering how accurate that number is if the checker made so many errors flagging things that were correct to begin with.

The most significant thing I take from this exercise is: be extremely careful.  The Grammar Checker is not very accurate.  Don’t rely on it to “correct” your grammar in your writing.  Know the rules yourself.  A sentence fragment is okay in the proper context.  Know where a comma goes and where a semicolon goes.  And so on and so forth.  (That, BTW, is a sentence fragment.)

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