Poetry and Prose, Computers and Code

Back in February, I analyzed WordPress’s automated grammar checker, After the Deadline, by running some famous and well-regarded pieces of prose through it. I found the program lacking. What I wrote was:

If you have understood this article so far, you already know more about writing than After the Deadline. It will not improve your writing. It will most likely make it worse. Contrary to what is claimed on its homepage, you will not write better and you will spend more time editing.

I think my test of After the Deadline proved its inefficiency, especially since I noticed that the program finds errors in its own suggestions. Talk about needing to heed your own advice…

A comment by one of the program’s developers, Raphael Mudge, however, got me thinking about what benefit (if any) automatic grammar checkers can offer. Mr. Mudge noted that the program was written for bloggers so running famous prose through it was not fair. He is right about that, but as I replied, the problem with automated grammar checkers really lies with the confidence and capability of writers who use them:

[The effect that computer grammar checkers could have on uncertain writers] is even more important when we think of running After the Deadline against a random sample of blog posts, as you suggest. While that would be more fair than what I did, it wouldn’t necessarily tell us anything. What’s needed is a second step of deciding which editing suggestions will be accepted. If we accept only the correct suggestions, we assume an extremely capable author who is therefore not in need of the program. As the threshold for our accepted suggestions lowers, however, we will begin to see a muddying of the waters – the more poorly written posts will be made better, but the more well written posts will be made worse. The question then becomes where do we draw the line on acceptions to ensure that the program is not doing more harm than good? That will decide the program’s worth, in my opinion.

As it turns out, after that review of After the Deadline, I was contacted by someone from Grammarly, another automated grammar checker. For some reason they wanted me to review their program. I said sure, I’d love to, and then I promptly did nothing. In truth, I was sidetracked by other things – kids, work, beer, school, the NHL playoffs, more beer, and recycling. So much for that.

Now R.L.G. over at the Economist’s Johnson blog has a post about these programs and a short discussion of Ben Yagoda’s review of Grammarly at Lingua Franca, a Chronicle of Higher Education blog. I want to quickly review these posts and add to my thoughts about these programs.

First, R.L.G. rightly points out that “computers can be very good at parsing natural language, finding determiners and noun phrases and verb phrases and organising them into trees.” I’m happy to agree with that. Part-of-speech taggers alone are amazing and they open up new ways of researching language. But, as he again rightly points out, “Online grammar coaches and style checkers will be snake oil for some time, precisely due to some of the things that separate formal and natural languages.”

Second, Mr. Yagoda’s review of Grammarly is spot on. (I’m impressed by how much he was able to do with only a five day trial. They gave me three months, Ben. Have your people call mine.) Not to take anything away from Mr. Yagoda, but reviewing these checkers is like shooting fish in a barrel because they’re pretty awful. A rudimentary understanding of writing is enough to protect you from their “corrections”. But it’s the lofty claims of these programs that makes testing them irresistible to people like Mr. Yagoda and myself.

So who uses automated grammar checkers and who could possibly benefit from them? The answer takes us back to the confidence of writers. Obviously, writers like RLG and Ben Yagoda are out of the question. As I noted in my comment to Mr. Mudge, the developer of After the Deadline, “a confident writer doesn’t need computer grammar checkers for a variety of reasons, so it’s the uncertain writers that matter. They may have perfect grammar, but be lead astray by a computer grammar checker.” It’s even worse if we take into account Mr. Yagoda’s point that “when it comes to computer programs evaluating prose, the cards never tell the truth.”

We do not have computers that can edit prose, not even close. What we have right now are inadequate grammar checkers that may be doing more harm than good since the suggestions they make are either useless or flat out wrong. They are also being peddled to writers who may not be able to recognize how bad they are. So there’s a danger that competent but insecure writers will follow the program’s misguided attempts to improve their prose.

It’s strange that Grammarly would ask Mr. Yagoda or myself to review their program since Mr. Yagoda is clearly immune to the program’s snake oil charm and I wasn’t exactly kind to After the Deadline. But such bad business decisions might prove helpful for everyone. Respected writers will point out the inadequacy of these automatic grammar checkers, which will hopefully influence people to not use them. At the same time, until these programs can really prove their worth – or at least not make their inadequacy so glaringly obvious – they will not receive any good press from those who know how to write (nor will they get any from lowly bloggers like myself). In this case, any press is not good press since anyone reading R.L.G. or Ben Yagoda’s discussion of automated grammar checkers is unlikely to use one, especially if they have to pay for it.

[Update – Aug. 9, 2012] R.L.G. at Johnson, the Economist’s language blog that I linked to above, heard from Grammarly’s chief executive about what the program was meant for (“to proofread mainstream text like student papers, cover letters and proposals”). So he decided to put Grammarly through some more tests. Want to guess how it did? Check it.

Advertisements

The Real Reason Short Words Are Best

In the opening of a recent Macmillan Dictionary Blog post, Robert Lane Greene quotes the editor of the Economist’s style guide, who in turn quotes Winston Churchill as saying “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Greene then goes on to discuss how difficult it is to write clearly. If you think you’ve heard this one before, don’t. Greene’s post is brief, practical, and a touch insightful. He believes that journalists often get a “bad rap” as writers of plain English because of the schedules they are under. I can go along with that.

Greene also says that metaphors are one way writers can improve. He says there are “three ways to use a metaphor to get ideas across, and two of them are bad.” The two bad kinds are tired metaphors and strained metaphors. Greene suggests using the best kind of metaphors, those that are “simple, clear, memorable and quite often short.”

Greene uses the conventional meaning of “metaphor,” of course, since that’s how most people still understand the term. But the updated meaning shows us that phrases like on Wednesday and the sun came out are also metaphors (for those unfamiliar, think about actually putting something on a day in the way we put something on a table). This realization of metaphors lurking all around our language is important because it adds what I think is the most important element of Greene’s (and Churchill’s and the unnamed Economist editor’s) belief that short words are best. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into Conceptual Metaphor Theory or Blending. I’m trying to keep your attention, believe it or not.)

Consider the opening to Greene’s post, which is really the opening to the Economist editorial:

“Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.” Thus, quoting Winston Churchill, began an editorial in The Economist that consisted entirely of one-syllable words. It went on:
“AND, not for the first time, he was right: short words are best. Plain they may be, but that is their strength. They are clear, sharp and to the point. You can get your tongue round them. You can spell them. Eye, brain and mouth work as one to greet them as friends, not foes. For that is what they are.”

Churchill, Greene, and our anonymous editor aren’t the only ones that love short words. You’ll hear language gurus promoting them all over the place. It’s a common idea, but a good one. It goes: Keep it simple, stupid.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that short words are anything but “plain.” The more I think about them, the more I realize that short words are downright complex, especially ones like prepositions. For example, you know what on, of, at, in, etc. mean, but could you define them? It’s pretty tough when you think about it. Fortunately, every language has a way of expressing the notions that prepositions in English express, such as spatial relations. So when you encounter a new language, no matter if it has prepositions or suffixes doing the job of English prepositions, you will be able to understand them. That’s not plain, in my mind. Prepositions do some complicated things.

I don’t think Greene, Churchill or Mr. Editor were talking about prepositions, though. So let’s think about some other short and “plain” words. The English word set, according to Macmillan, has fifteen definitions. Stand has seventeen definitions. Run has nineteen. And that’s not counting the entries for phrases that include these words.

These are not plain words. Short words are not great because they are “to the point,” but because they are to so many points. The fact is, I can do a lot more with set, stand, and run than I can with Australopithecus, midi-chlorians, and Tyrannosaurus rex. That’s because English packs a lot of information into little tiny words.

Or, then again, maybe it doesn’t. Sometimes we’re forced to say yesterday or tomorrow, pretentious or university (two unrelated words), Superman or Professor Xavier. That’s just the way things are.

In his editorial, the Masked Editor uses literature as an example of what can be done with short words – “to be or not to be,” “The year’s at the spring/And day’s at the morn…/The lark’s on the wing;/The snail’s on the thorn.” But he’s using a double-edged sword and he’s not using it well. Sometimes people write thinigs like this:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door–
“‘Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Or this:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Or this:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

So it goes. I guess some folks know what they’re doing. Neither Churchill, nor Greene, nor the artist formerly known as an editor tell us what a short word is. One syllable? Two? Three is stretching it, I guess.

The point is, Greene, Churchill, and the editor who wasn’t there are correct. Everyone should keep it simple (stupid). They should do that all the time. It’s a good rule to follow. But we should realize that in English our “short and simple” words are often only the former, not the latter. I’m not picking on Greene, who I think is a great journalist (seriously, DuckDuckGo his name, read his articles, watch his TED Talks). It’s just that his article made me think of this idea, which has probably been brewing for a while.

By the way, here are the first three sentences of The Gathering Storm, the first book in a series which won Churchill the Nobel Prize in Literature:

After the end of the World War of 1914 there was a deep conviction and almost universal hope that peace would reign in the world. This heart’s desire of all the peoples could easily have been gained by steadfastness in righteous convictions, and by reasonable common sense and prudence. The phrase “the war to end war” was on every lip, and measures had been taken to turn it into a reality.

And then there’s the rest of Hamlet’s speech that our friendly neighborhood editor used as an example. Guess what, there’s disagreement over its meaning. So much for short words. Shakespeare does away with them after the first line. To wit:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come…

[Update: Mr. Greene was kind enough to drop by and leave a link to his reply, which you can find here.]