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>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
it to COPYEDITING-L,
>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
>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
>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
>"far form perfect". That was all. Clearly, the program is not very good at
> 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,
>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
>"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.
Standing among savage scenery, the hotel offers stupendous revelations.
There is a French widow in every bedroom, affording delightful prospects.
---- Gerard Hoffnung, supposedly quoting a letter from a Tyrolean
landlord. in speech at the Oxford Union, 4 December 1958
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