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.


write if you get work

I’ve been working on building my web and writing business for a while now.  I have had a couple of gigs here and there, but not what I really would like.

write ifyou get work stock photoThen I had an email from a former manager of mine. She is working for a small firm that works on customer referrals and success stories. They do a lot of one-page customer success story write-ups. Would I be interested in giving this a shot, she asked. I absolutely would, I responded.

I was given a transcript of a customer interview and some general guidelines. I wrote the piece and turned it in. When I heard back I learned that I had made a couple of bonehead errors. But they also liked my work enough that they are going to give me a second assignment. And I got paid.

It’s a promising start.

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the passive voice

I recently came across an article I had saved from the first quarter 1991 issue of Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication, or STC. The article by Kent Porter is entitled “Usage of the Passive Voice,” and is a hilarious spoof on the use of the passive in technical communication.

passive voice: "inconvenience caused is regretted"The passive voice, of course, is when the subject of the sentence becomes the object. The sentence “He clobbered me” is in the active voice. “I was clobbered by him” is in the passive voice.

Although most of Porter’s article is funny only if you have either been a technical writer or a user of technical manuals, the author provides a couple of tidbits that any student of language can enjoy. First, he re-writes Shakespeare:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, your ears should be lent to me. … It is intended that Caesar be buried, not praised.

In another example he writes:

Jane was asked to be married by Robert through a romantic proposal.

Both great examples of why to avoid the passive.

I belong to an online kitchen appliances group. One woman wrote about a particular appliance:

My husband and I agreed that the quiche is not going to be made again.

I’m not sure why she didn’t want to admit to who was responsible for making the quiche.

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to use the passive. Anne Curzan, in her video course English Grammar Boot Camp, writes about starting a blog entry this way:

I have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by graduate students in the English and Education program.

Curzan points out that the passive is useful here because the focus of the second sentence is the mug and not the graduate students.

In The Elements of Style Strunk and White state:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. … This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

The pompous H.W. Fowler states in Modern English Usage that the passive “sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness.” Note the “sometimes.”

The bottom line, then: give preference to the active voice, but use the passive when appropriate.

By the way, if you are a technical writer or a user of technical manuals you might enjoy Porter’s original article. It’s here in PDF format. Note that the article starts halfway down the page.

photo credit: Scott Dexter, cropped.  license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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kid in a candy shop

Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation coverOne of the blogs I follow is CMOS Shop Talk, from the good folks at the Chicago Manual of Style. They recently ran an interview with Bryan Garner about the May release of his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. (What took them so long?) Ann Curzan, the instructor in the English Grammar Boot Camp video course that I am taking often quotes from the author’s Garner’s Modern English Usage, and he seems to me to frequently take a conservative, overly pedantic, and restrictive stance on grammar and usage. But, I thought, he is writing the Chicago Guide for the Chicago Manual of Style, so he is going to have to adhere to Chicago style, rules, and conventions. Right? And in any case he is the author of the Grammar and Usage” chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style.

So I bought it.

And what a pleasure the book is. It tells me all about mass nouns and count nouns. It distinguishes between qualitative adjectives and quantitative adjectives. It discusses linking verbs, phrasal verbs, and ergative verbs. It discusses compound sentences, complex sentences, and even compound-complex sentences.

So much fun.

It’s that little old grammar nerd, me.

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much ado about nothing

I spent the greater part of a recent morning getting my knickers in a knot over nothing.

I had just started a new course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor displayed a sentence which the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary sent to their usage panel to get panel member views as to whether the construction was acceptable. The sentence read:

Aptitude is essential; but equally as important is the desire to learn.

The question revolved around the use of “equally as important” in the sentence, the idea being that it might be better to streamline the sentence by writing “equally important.” However, I fixated on the words after the semicolon, thinking that they did not constitute an independent clause. I composed a rant for the blog on my business web site, describing how that bothered me, and citing the Chicago Manual of Style chapter and verse. Chicago takes the position that the phrase to the right of a semicolon must be an independent clause.

But wait. There’s a problem here. “equally as important is the desire to learn” is an independent clause. It is a sort of backwards Yoda English (“Much to learn you still have.”) that does not stand well on its own, but it is an independent clause nonetheless. Remove the “as.” “Equally important is the desire to learn.”

Subject the desire to learn
Verb is
Predicate equally important

Now there is a comparative (“equally important”) that does not have a referent, which is not good syntax, but grammatically this is an independent clause.

I wasted a morning on a rant I was wrong about.

In the words of Miss Emily Latella, “Oh, that’s very different. Never mind.”

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the typewriter

I don’t miss my typewriter. I’m a terrible typist. I always have been. And it’s infinitely easier to correct errors on a computer than it is on a typewriter.

typewriterStill, the typewriter was an essential part of my life for many years. My first typewriter was a gift from my parents and grandparents before I was even in high school. It was, of course, indispensable when I was in college. And I used a typewriter for many years after college. The first computer I had where I could actually compose and print things out was my Apple IIe in 1986 or 1987. That pretty much spelled the end of my using a typewriter.

Still, it’s fun to look back. This photo essay of writers at their typewriters was actually published in The Guardian in 2011, but I only recently came across it. It’s a lot of fun to scroll through. What is interesting is how modest most of the typewriters are. Only Hunter S. Thompson is shown with a powerful IBM Selectric. (And by the way, the spell checker in my blog tool didn’t recognize that once well-known brand name.)

I managed with a typewriter for years, but I much prefer the technology I have today.


place it on the mantel, pass on the mantle

One of the things I like about Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, is that she admits when she makes a mistake. In fact, she sometimes writes a whole article about it.

That’s what she did when she when she wrote “mantle” when she meant to write “mantel.” She wrote a piece about how to remember when to use which spelling.

GrammarGirlShe writes that a “mantle” is what a king wears or what you pass on when continuing a dynasty. A “mantel” is what is above the fireplace. I have to admit that if I knew that there were two different spellings I had forgotten that a long time ago. We had a mantel in our house in Gilroy. I am likely to have written about it using the wrong spelling.

Mignon says that the two words have the same root, but according to the American Heritage Dictionary the roots are different.

As for that mnemonic device, it’s kind of silly. I’ll let you read the article if you’re interested. Besides, it’s worth your time to visit the Grammar Girl site.


New York Times Manual of Style and Usage

I have been trying to be more diligent about giving myself ready access to resources for grammar, usage, and style. I recently bookmarked several, most of which I mentioned in my blog entry about spaces after periods. Last week I added to my reference library. I downloaded the Kindle version of the newly updated New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.

I was disappointed to see that “website” is now listed as the preferred term for a presence on the World Wide Web, and while that phrase is capitalized as I have it here, “web” by itself is lowercase. Sigh. I have long held out for “Web site,” but I guess that battle is lost. On the positive side, Internet is still capitalized.

I appreciate that the guide wants to err on the side of clarity. For example: “web address is preferred in most references to a URL…” Likewise the manual tells us: “semimonthly means twice a month. Every two months is bimonthly. To minimize confusion, avoid the prefix forms whenever possible and use twice a month or every two months.” Sound advice.

Then there is this: “saga. It is a long story of adventure or heroism, not just any story.” If I have not violated that rule here in this blog in references to my own life, I very easily could have done so.

Finally, I absolutely love this one: “wake-up call, except in an instruction to a hotel front desk, is a cliché.” Thank you for that!

This is a great resource. I’m going to get my money’s worth out of this purchase.


spaces after periods

The penguin Opus, with Bill the Cat as his running mate, has entered the presidential race in the revived Bloom County comic strip. At the end of last week Opus came out strongly on the divisive issue of how many spaces to use after a period. His position, I am sorry to report, supports two spaces after a period. That this is a highly emotional issue can be seen from the comments when my friend Jane Redmont posted the first strip on her Facebook timeline.

My position is that two spaces after a period is a factor of the monospaced fonts used on typewriters, and that when using a computer with proportional fonts spacing is handled automatically, and only one space is needed.

Mignon Fogarty, known as Grammar Girl, not so much an authority in her own right, as someone who has undertaken the work to do the difficult research on our behalf, takes this position. Likewise, the Web site GrammarBook.com, based on The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, published by the respected technical publishing house Wiley, agrees. Also in agreement is the The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A.

Oddly, grammar.com states: “In word-processed documents, two spaces traditionally follow a sentence-ending period.” But it then admits that the rule is changing and goes on to cite the Modern Language Association:

quotePublications in the United States today usually have the same spacing after a punctuation mark as between words on the same line. Since word processors make available the same fonts used by typesetters for printed works, many writers, influenced by the look of typeset publications, now leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark.

I can only think that that first sentence refers to early word processors, when word processing and computing were done on different hardware.

Mignon, in her Grammar Girl post on the subject, refers to what she calls “a long and fascinating piece” that takes the dissenting view. Personally, I found the piece much more of an angry rant, but for the sake of completeness, I include the link here.

Bottom line: Sorry, Opus. It’s one space after a period.

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on punctuation

I pay careful attention to my grammar and punctuation here. I know that my blog is not error-free, but as my friend Tahoe Mom says, everyone needs an editor. Unfortunately, this individual blogger doesn’t have access to an editor. Still, I do my best.

Lately I have been thinking more than usual about punctuation. In particular there are three punctuation marks to which I pay particular attention: commas, explanation points, and semicolons.

  • Commas — There was a time when I overused commas. I don’t believe I do so as much anymore. I do take care to remove commas that on second reading seem unnecessary.
  • Exclamation Points — I am strict in limiting my use of exclamation points. I never allow more than one exclamation point in a paragraph, and for the most part, only one exclamation point per blog entry.
  • Semicolons — Semicolons are tough. I rarely use them. American grammar dictates that semicolons link two independent clauses. (So the section on semicolons in Eats, Shoots and Leaves really grated on me, because British grammar allows a semicolon to separate a dependent clause and a related dependent clause.) It’s very rare in my writing that I find two independent clauses that are so closely related that they merit a semicolon. My rule is: when in doubt create two separate sentences. Which is almost always.

Those are my personal random thoughts on punctuation. That and $3.25 will get you a personal grande decaf cappuccino, dry. (I miss you Boston Pobble!)