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, July 24, 2008

Grammar moment: the pitfalls of the computer grammar checker

“But it can’t be wrong – the computer said there were no errors!”

Computer grammar and spelling checkers may have their uses, but they also have a serious dark side, especially for students new to the art of writing. The problem is that novice writers, not trusting their own skills, put way too much faith in the computer. They just don’t realize that, even as beginners, they have far better skills to tell when the grammar is right. They attribute far more intelligence to the computer program than any piece of software is capable of having, especially not the grammar checker that comes with the biggest name brand word processor.

The spelling checker might not be as seriously flawed, but its influence is more insidious. When it encounters a word not in its dictionary, it makes guesses to what was originally intended, listing words in order according to the spelling checker’s estimate of likelihood. But more than half the time, the word at the top of the list is NOT the word the writer intended, and if the writer assumes that the spelling checker’s choice is the right one, the writer ends up with the wrong word. Thus, spelling errors have nearly disappeared from student writing, but misused words are epidemic – I have lost count of the number of times I have seen “defiantly” used for “definitely,” or “untied” used for “united.”

I have seen cases in which students are so untrusting of their own judgment, and so trusting of the computer, that they go through their papers, making changes, often at random, until every last green or orange squiggly underline disappears. The results are atrocious, and far from grammatically correct. I once received a paper on which the student had misspelled her own name – when I asked about it, she said, “The computer said it was wrong, so I fixed it.” This was a name that the student was proud of, that her mother had chosen carefully because it was unique. But the student chose the computer’s “correctness” over her mother’s intentions.

Yes, spelling and grammar checkers can be useful, but primarily in the hands of more advanced writers who can make the judgment of whether the computer has pointed out a legitimate concern or has simply flagged as an error something that is not really an error. I tell my students, time and time again, that the computer is wrong more than half the time, that the computer flags what might be an error, but it’s up to the students to look closely and figure out whether there’s really an error there. But they still go blindly with what the computer says. I would love to disable the grammar checker, and maybe the spelling checker, too, on any computer in the student computer labs. However, that’s a losing battle – too many people are too fond of the checkers.

I’m not alone in my complaints. There is a professor in Seattle who has discovered similar problems. At one point, he was even considering suing Microsoft for its lousy grammar checker. On a more humorous note, there’s a Wiccan who discovered that there is a difference between a spell checker and a spelling checker.

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Blogger Lydia Manx said...

*laughs and snorts*

Okay I liked that rant. I often find that spell (spelling?) check has a unique idea of my brain and they are wrong. One of my editor buddies at Piker Press suggested I stop and read aloud the piece if I was 'hearing' something off and it usually would help. She's right or is that write?

Thu Jul 24, 07:32:00 PM MDT  
Blogger bonnie said...

Ordinarily I ignore the spell check, but spell check errors did once give me a grim little chuckle once when I was a partner in a kayak company & somehow ended up with the unpleasant task of working with the lawyer to write up the dissolution papers for a really, really nasty partner.

Every time I typed a certain version of her name, Spell Check would oh-so-helpfully say,

"Do you perhaps mean 'Swindle'?"

And I would sigh and say,

"Well, yes. Actually I do. But leave it alone, we're trying to get her to go away, not pick one last horrible fight."

Oh, and the suggested replacement for my last name?

"Aligner". Which was exactly what I felt like I was trying to do after things had gone horribly, horribly awry with this person.

At least it made me laugh. And that was the ONLY thing about that particular effort was even remotely amusing.

Tue Jul 29, 05:13:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Programming note: Visitor 39K was somebody from the University of Florida, looking for "Florida state tartan," who arrived at my post about official state whatevers.

Fri Aug 01, 02:16:00 AM MDT  

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