Re. Spelling & grammar checker use survey?

Subject: Re. Spelling & grammar checker use survey?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 25 Apr 2000 08:39:20 -0400

Megan O'Connell submitted a few questions on "how professional/expert
writers use spellingcheckers and grammar checkers" in MS Word:

<<1) Do you use either the spellchecker or the grammar checker on documents
you produce in Word? If not, why not?>>

I use the spellchecker regularly because I can't proofread as accurately
on-screen as I can on paper, particularly after a long day spent staring at
the monitor. That's true of most editors in my experience, though some claim
they're more effective online. I stopped using the grammar checker after
dabbling with it a while back to see how (and whether) it works. I found it
primitive and that it identified far more false alarms than useful points.
It has little or no sensitivity to style or context, and (fatal sin, in my
opinion) it misses substantive errors, which are generally far more
important to readers than minor grammatical issues. (Of course, I'm a
professional editor, so that biases my opinion.)

<<2) If you use the spellchecker, do you usually go back over a document
that Word has spell-checked? Why or why not?>>

It's inefficient to spellcheck before I'm done with the document for the
current round of revisions; after all, anything new that I enter in the file
may end up containing typos. So I use the spellchecker only _after_ my
substantive edit, which will catch the kind of word-substitution problems
(e.g., "their" rather than "there" or "they're") that a spell checker can't
catch. The spell checker is solely my backstop ("did I miss anything?"), not
my primary tool.

<<3) If you use the grammar checker, when Word flags a potential grammar
error, do you generally accept its suggested changes? If not, why not?>>

I haven't used it recently. When I did, I found that I disagreed with most
of its advice and generally had better suggestions for revision on my own.
It might prove useful if you turn off almost all the rules if I wanted to
teach a new writer how to look for (and correct) excessive use of passive
voice, for example.

<<4) If you use the grammar checker, do you usually go back over a document
that Word has grammar-checked? Why or why not?>>

If I did use it (and I don't), I'd use the same philosophy as with the spell
checker: first, make all the important corrections myself, and when I think
I'm done, use the grammar checker to spot anything I've missed.

<<5) Have you noticed any significant problems with the Microsoft Word
spellchecker or grammar checker? What are they?>>

The dictionary is very limited. Even allowing for the fact that I work in a
fairly specialized field (forestry), I find myself adding lots of words I
shouldn't have to add. (Of course, I like using lots of words, and have a
pretty good vocabulary, so I may not be typical.) It also takes a lot of
tweaking to get the software to recognize even simple things like plurals of
words I've added to the dictionary, or contractions.

<<6) Can you think of any experiences/instances in using a spellchecker or
grammarchecker that produced interesting or surprising results (either
positive or negative)? Please elaborate briefly:>>

A colleague just reported a case of his author's spellchecker substituting
"theromorphism" for "theomorphism", but that's a user error, not a problem
with the spellchecker itself. And that leads me to my real problem with
spellcheckers or grammar checkers: they often become a placebo for poor
writers, and provide a false sense of security. Worse yet, they give the
impression that there's no need to actually learn to spell or to apply the
rules of grammar. That strikes me as a bit scary given the quality of
writing in the modern age.

I have no doubt that within the next decade, some millionaire to be
will come up with a decent grammar checker, or a spell checker that is
sensitive to the context, but in the short term, I'm not worried about my
job security as an editor.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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