Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker

closeThis post was published 11 years 7 months 27 days ago. A number of changes have been made to the site since then, so please contact me if anything is broken or seems wrong.

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I generally like to hold my writing up to high standards. Perfect spellingg, Ccapitalization, punctuation, etc. are all things I aspire to. (Ending sentences with prepositions is fine by me, though. 😉

From all those feeds I subscribe to in Google Reader, one of them brought me an amusing screenshot that shows Microsoft Word’s grammar checker mid-mistake. I shared that item and it showed up in my FriendFeed, where my mother (who just started using the site) saw and commented on it.

Incidentally, I just started sharing things in Google Reader in addition to starring. Stars will become private again, and I’ve removed that widget from the sidebar as stuff I really want to share now shows up as part of the FriendFeed item. But back to my main point…

The discussion arising from her one comment, made while I was encouraging her to try out FriendFeed, sparked a total of ten others, not counting the one I made at the end (which was unrelated). The points made basically added up to a general consensus that Word’s grammar checker is OK, and it’s allowed to mess up.

Computerizing tasks is always hard, and that’s why we have human intervention in so many things that could be automated but aren’t fully so. That human layer adds the opportunity to catch mistakes made by the algorithms employed by the machine. English grammar (sorry, I’m biased; I’ve only ever used the English checker) is complicated, even for us humans. Writing algorithms to detect and correct errors is a monumental task, and one which is bound to entail some glitches.

Interestingly, the original question (“Could any of you programmers tell me how you would write an algorithm to determine which form of “coaching” the writer implies?” – msbroida) was never answered, but the discussion was interesting enough.

So can we fault Microsoft Word for making mistakes? No. It’s just a program, and programs are only as good as the code that comprises them, which in turn is only as good as the programmer(s) who write(s) it. (Resisting the urge to use regex tricks like /programmers? who writes?/ is hard, but nobody would get it.)

Add the complexity of the English language to the complexity of writing any syntax checker and multiply it times the number of exceptions to the rules of English, and you get a pretty difficult task. What’s important is training people to not blindly trust software tools like this, and making sure they don’t have a problem with questioning the program if they think it’s wrong.

It also couldn’t hurt to turn these things off by default, to give people a chance to learn for themselves the difference between “your” and “you’re”… 😉

dgw

I am an avid technology and software user, in addition to being reasonably well-versed in CSS, JavaScript, HTML, PHP, Python, and (though it still scares me) Perl. Aside from my technological tendencies, I am also a theatre technician, sound designer, violinist, singer, and actor.

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