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(Grammar) Check, Please!

By Michelle Corbin | STC Fellow

In Editing Matters, Michelle Corbin covers matters (topics) about editing that matter (are of consequence) to communicators of all kinds. Watch this space to understand more about editing and what you can do to improve the quality of your content. To suggest a topic or ask a question, contact Michelle at michelle.l.corbin@gmail.com.

One of the most maligned tools used by writers of all kinds is the grammar checker. While a grammar checker can never replace a human editor, it can be a useful tool in the technical communicator’s toolbox. One of my favorite blogs, An American Editor, explored grammar checkers as an editing tool in a guest post by Jack Lyon, and asked if they could improve an editor’s productivity. Yes, I do see value in using grammar checkers as a technical writer or as a technical editor. Let’s explore the use of grammar checkers in the editing process.

What is a grammar checker?

A grammar checker is a computer program that uses a dictionary and a set of linguistic rules along with pattern matching to parse and analyze a sentence. These programs can be integrated into document processing software, can be add-on programs, or they can be stand-alone programs. Microsoft Word includes a grammar checker as a feature, but Acrolinx is an add-on (or stand-alone) program. While Arolinx at its core is a grammar checker (“advanced linguistic analytics engine”), it promotes itself as “content optimization software” (per their website). While there are other grammar checkers in the playing field (WhiteSmoke, Grammarly, and ProWritingAid, to name a few), I’ve only ever used Microsoft Word’s grammar checker and Acrolinx.

Who should use a grammar checker?

Personally, I think that only professional (trained) writers and editors should use grammar checkers. If someone writes something and then blindly uses the grammar checker to correct all issues that it identifies, as untrained writers might be tempted to do, the writing will most certainly be worse than it was before. Or, as Geoffrey K. Pullman, a linguistics professor, put it in a Language Log blog post: “accepting the advice of a computer grammar checker on your prose will make it much worse, sometimes hilariously incoherent.” However, trained technical writers and trained technical editors can use a grammar checker with a more critical eye to what is being flagged as an issue and use our own writing skills and knowledge to make changes to the text.

When should we use a grammar checker?

If you’re a technical writer, I think you should turn the grammar checker off while writing. Writing is a complex process that involves a lot of rewriting. Once you have a completed draft, you can turn on the grammar checker (and spell checker) to do a last pass through the text to check for issues, even if you are lucky enough to have a technical editor review your work.

If you are a technical editor, you can use grammar checkers as a first pass to clean up the draft and catch any egregious errors that might distract you from addressing larger architectural and stylistic issues that grammar checkers just won’t catch, especially if you are editing text from subject matter experts or from non-professional writers.

How should we use a grammar checker?

Technical writers and technical editors should only use a grammar checker if it can be customized. Different types of writing (which have different audiences) require different sets of grammar and style rules; effective grammar checking cannot be one size fits all.

Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has been improved quite a bit over the years (see a review of its enhancements by Brien Posey in Redmond magazine), including being able to customize which rules are checked for different styles of writing (casual, standard, formal, and technical). At IBM, we use Acrolinx, and we have the IBM Style, Word Usage, and Terminology rules programmed into its rules engine, including our own help topics for the issues that get flagged.

Even with extensive customization of grammar checkers such as Acrolinx, the use of a grammar checker still requires the critical eye of a trained technical writer or editor to make appropriate and effective updates to the text. After all, computers are still quite fallible, identifying issues that are not issues, especially when it comes to analyzing the complexities of the syntax of a language (sorry, HAL).

So, what’s the deal with grammar checkers?

When Linda Oestreich and I taught our Technical Editing Fundamentals certificate workshop for STC a few years back, the first homework assignment for our students was to use a grammar checker on a paragraph of text, evaluate the grammar checker, and report back on how grammar checkers should be used. My favorite response was this: “Using a grammar checker was like using a scientific or engineering calculator; only those skilled in language can use it well, and it is quite easy to become too dependent on it.” Grammar checkers will continue to improve, and might become as ubiquitous (and annoying) as auto-correct is on all our mobile devices.

References

Acrolinx. “Our Story.” Acrolinx. Accessed 22 April 2018. https://www.acrolinx.com/about/.

Kubrick, Stanley, and Arthur C. Clarke. 2001: A Space Odyssey. 3 April 1968. (HAL stood for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer.)

Lyon, Jack. “Lyonizing Word: Editing by Computer.” An American Editor. 8 February 2017. Accessed 22 April 2018. https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2017/02/08/lyonizing-word-editing-by-computer/.

Posey, Brien. “Making Word’s Grammar Checker Better.” Redmond Magazine. 21 June 2017. Accessed 22 April 2018. https://redmondmag.com/articles/2017/06/21/making-word-grammar-checker-better.aspx.

Pullman, Geoffrey K. “Monkeys Will Check Your Grammar.” Language Log. 26 October 2007. Accessed 22 April 2018. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005061.html.

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