Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Grammar Moment: Grammar and Spelling Checkers

Don’t trust the computer!

As an English teacher, I have been observing a new and alarming phenomenon: the student who believes that the computer’s grammar checker is infallible. This student spends vast amounts of time in the computer lab, painstakingly editing every essay until it no longer has any of those dreaded green or orange squiggly underlines, and then assumes the essay is perfect.

I have lost count of the number of times I have told my students that the grammar checker is WRONG at least half the time. The English language is the most complicated language on Earth, and that means that even the most sophisticated computer program can’t reliably analyze it and make a definitive determination of whether there is an error. The best the grammar checker can do is to determine where there might be an error. It is up to the writer to look at what the grammar checker has flagged and figure out whether, this time, the computer has made the correct call.

I have seen students, at the behest of the grammar checker, take a perfectly formed sentence and split it into two sentence fragments, or change a verb that agreed with its subject into one that didn’t, or make some totally bizarre change in the syntax of a sentence. If I had my way, I’d have the grammar checker disabled on the computers at the community college where I teach – and I’m not just talking about getting rid of the green squiggly underlines, which are easily turned off; I want it to be impossible for students to run a grammar check even by going through the appropriate menus.

I’m not the only person who is fed up with grammar checkers, and especially the one that comes with MS Word. Here is an article about another college instructor who has similar problems: A Word to the unwise -- program's grammar check isn't so smart This guy is very thoroughly fed up with the grammar checker, and I don’t blame him.

Related to the trust in the grammar checker is inordinate trust in the spelling checker. I and many other teachers have noticed a sharp decline in students’ ability to spell, and I strongly believe it is because students wrongly think they can rely on the computer’s spelling checker to fix everything. The computer has become a crutch, and it has prevented students from actually learning what they need to know about spelling.

The problem is that a spelling checker has a very limited ability. All that a spelling checker can do is to see whether a particular word is in that spelling checker’s dictionary. If the word is in the dictionary, that’s OK as far as the spelling checker is concerned. If the word isn’t in the dictionary, then the spelling checker will make a guess about what the writer really meant.

This leads to three different bad outcomes. If the word is in the dictionary but isn’t the right word (for example, there instead of their), the spelling checker will miss the mistake entirely. If the word is misspelled and the spelling checker makes a guess about what word was really meant, and the student blindly goes for the first choice, again, the wrong word gets used (for example, defiantly instead of definitely). If the word is not misspelled, but it’s not in the spelling checker’s dictionary, the student will change it into something that is in the dictionary – I had a student who changed the spelling of her own name to get rid of that orange underline. That, to me, is sacrilege – names and naming are sacred.

If I had my way, neither the grammar nor the spelling checker would be permitted at the community college level. Yes, these tools might have some value (although I’m not sure how much) among experienced writers who know they can trust themselves and their own judgment. But among inexperienced writers, who don’t trust themselves and their own judgment even when such judgment is sound, the computer tools are a disaster.

Oh, on a related note, you might observe that I have been making comments about spelling checkers, not spell checkers. In case you are interested in the difference, here’s some insight from a Pagan: The Difference Between a Spell Checker and a Spelling Checker


Anonymous pL said...

For the record: couldn't spell way before there were spelling checkers!

Thu Mar 23, 05:50:00 AM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Of course, there are some ways to have fun with the spelling checker. For example, when I worked on the sports desk at the Journal, one day when things were slow, we entered the names of various staff members into the spelling checker to see what would happen.

The results were hilarious. For example, one of our sports reporters, a big, burly former college football player, was, according to the spelling checker, "Rosebud." The managing editor was "Saddam."

Thu Mar 23, 10:02:00 AM MST  
Blogger Pat said...

Then there was the "Sea Sponge" legal defense ("sua sponte").

Thu Mar 23, 12:52:00 PM MST  

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