automated proofing tools and their limitations

I have a long history with automated proofing tools. That history goes back to about 1990, when I experimented with a couple of grammar checkers while working at a small software company. To put this in context, at that time the only people who used Microsoft Windows were those who used graphic or desktop publishing tools that required it. The rest of us used the command line with the C prompt to start our programs, which, you may remember, we had to use one at a time. It was not until 1992 with the release of Windows 3.1 that the graphical user interface came into common use.

keyboardThe results of the testing I did with these proofing tools were disappointing. Things that should have been flagged weren’t and things that did not need to be flagged often were. Sadly, twenty-six years later in the world of Windows 10 little has changed.

In her marvelous Great Courses lecture series, English Grammar Boot Camp, Anne Curzan shows little love for the Microsoft Word grammar checker. She says that it often gets things wrong, and sometimes the rules it tries to enforce are often not even rules. For example, her version flags sentences that start with “and.” Interestingly, my Word 2013 doesn’t complain. In any case there is, she says, there is no established rule on not starting a sentence with “and.” (Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, says this rule is “one with no historical or grammatical foundation.”)

I certainly have my issues with Microsoft tools. The Word 2013 proofing tools failed to flag a repeated “the.” The grammar checker in Outlook wanted me to lowercase “give” at the beginning of a sentence (perhaps because it was preceded by “p.m.”) and failed to catch a “you” instead of “your” when I used the phrase “your money.”

Microsoft is not the only guilty party, however. The proofing tool for my personal blog has its annoyances. It asked me to replace “thyme” with “time” and “adobo” with “adobe.” I guess it doesn’t have much of an interest in cooking.

The bottom line: Don’t put too much trust in the grammar tools. Proofread carefully. Better yet, get someone to proofread your work for you.



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