[no subject]

From: DAVID IBBETSON <ibbetson -at- IDIRECT -dot- COM>
Date: Mon, 8 Jul 1996 17:48:14 -0400

Recently a student wrote to one of these groups, I think COPYEDITING-L,
asking for experience in the use of Grammar checkers. A small number of
negative replies were posted. Since then the following article, which was
published in The Economist last year, has come to my attention. I am posting
Techwr-l and Wordplay, because I consider it to be at once amusing and
instructive. If you don't find it so I apologise. (I scanned it in and then
proofread it. I hope I haven't made any mistakes, but experience shows I'll
be lucky if I haven't.

It is for articles like this, as well as its outstanding coverage of world
affairs, that I strongly recommend a subscription to the Economist to
anybody who can't afford to be ill-informed.

David (the idiot) Ibbetson
Nerds' English

TO BETTER write proper English, people are turning to grammar checkers.
Some hope that these tools will help themselves avoids making errors, however,
the technology is far from perfect. If Churchill was alive today, would his word
processor prevent him ending his sentences in a preposition?

The previous paragraph is obviously rife with grammatical errors, including a
split infinitive, a comma splice, a disagreement of subject and verb, an
pronoun before a gerund and a misuse of the subjunctive. Yet one of the most
popular computer grammar checkers failed to find anything wrong with
anything that was actually incorrect. Instead Grammatik expressed concern that
the adjective "alive" was misplaced and suggested changing "far from perfect" to
"far form perfect". That was all. Clearly, the program is not very good at
doing its

The grammar checker also turns clear, powerful prose into a turgid, choppy
mess. Poor Thomas Jefferson does not stand a chance. He wrote:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary
far one people to dissolve the political bonds which have
connected them with another, and to assume among the powers
of the earth, the separate and equal station to which
the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent
respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should
declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The grammar-checker "corrected" America's Declaration of Independence to read:

During human events, it becomes necessary for one person
to dissolve the political bonds that have connected them with
another. They take among the powers of the earth, the separate
and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's
God entitle them. A decent respect to the opinions of humankind
requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to the

Many of the changes to the Declaration of Independence were done
automatically by the computer; some, like changing from passive to active
constructions, had to be done by hand after the program complained. The result
is a document that the grammar checker enjoys and the reader abhors.

The problem is that computers are unable to parse language; they are able to
guess only at the structure of a sentence -- and then apply a rigid set of
euphony and style notwithstanding. If there are too many words in a sentence,
the grammar checker comments that long phrases are hard to understand. If a
gender-specific noun is used, the program pounces. (It is made in America, after
all.) When the rules get more complex, the computer makes more errors in
applying them. For instance, the sentence in the opening paragraph of this
article, ("Some hope that grammar checkers will help them avoids...") has a
disagreement of subject and verb -- a mistake which the program is supposed to
be able to correct. The grammar checker fails in its task because it
believes that
"hope" is the subject of the sentence.

Unfortunately, grammar checkers have not been improving. The lat-
est version of one product was well received not because it worked any better,
but because it was not as condescending as the previous model. Until computers
can make more sense of the vagaries of language, grammar checkers are
products up with which we will not put.

The Economist July 15th 1995, page 72.

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