The Problem with Computer Grammar Checkers [Updated]

When I moved this blog over to WordPress, I noticed that under the Users > Personal Settings page there is an option to turn on a computer proofreader. The program is from Automattic (the same people that make WordPress) and it’s called After the Deadline. While an automatic proofreader isn’t anything spectacular in itself, the grammar and style mistakes that this proofreader can supposedly prevent you from making are eye-popping:

bias language, cliches, complex phrases, diacritical marks, double negatives, hidden verbs, jargon, passive voice, phrases to avoid, and redundant phrases.

It’s an impressive looking list, but anyone with even mediocre writing skills and experience with computer proofreaders is likely to be wary. How often has Microsoft Word mistakenly underlined some of your text? How many times has your smartphone autocorrected you into incomprehension?

The thing is, when presented with such a list, even a confident writer couldn’t be blamed for being curious. Are you unwittingly making grammar mistakes in your carefully crafted prose? Have you been straying outside the accepted limits of complex and redundant phrases? Are there verbs hiding in your text? And holy shit, what the hell are diacritical marks?

Let’s put those ridiculous questions aside for a moment. Many people have pointed out what’s wrong with automatic spelling and grammar checkers. What I want to do here is show you why there are problems with these programs by using some highly regarded prose.

Let’s fire up the incinerator.

"To the Lighthouse" by Virginia Woolf*

At the first green line, After the Deadline suggests, “Did you mean… ‘its fine tomorrow?’” Things are not off to a good start. The three other green lines warn me (or Ms. Woolf) about the Dreaded Passive Voice™. The blue line suggests that “Complex Expression” be changed to “plans.”But perhaps the worst suggestion is given by clicking on the red line – “Did you mean… ‘sense,’ ‘cents,’ ‘scents?’” Moving on…

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

The blue line is another “Complex Expression,” which After the Deadline suggests be changed to “way.” That’s not so bad. The green line, however, is (according to the proofreader) an example of a “Hidden Verb.” What’s a hidden verb, you ask? As the After the Deadline explains, “A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.” But this doesn’t make any sense. Constant had not been nominalized, while had is one of the most common (and easiest to read) verbs in English. I’m told to “revise ‘had a constant’ to bring out the verb,” but I don’t know what that means. Alert readers will begin to see the problem here. So will everyone else.

"Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens

Here’s the Dreaded Passive Voice™ again. Geoffrey Pullum would have a fit with this program (comments are open, Geoff! Let us know how you really feel!). I guess the proofreader wants me to change the sentence to something like, “So I called myself Pip, and people called me Pip?” It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

All I really need to say here is that the second green line says “Hyphen Required” and suggests I change the phrase to “out-of-the-way.” Really? Yes, really.

To be sure, I ran some other styles of writing through After the Deadline, such as Pulitzer Prize winners, and got the same results. You’re welcome to run anything you want through there, but I got $20 bucks saying you’re going to get the same nonsense I did.

Getting back to those ridiculous questions, the answers are all irrelevant. 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 can’t believe anyone except the most inexperienced writers would be fooled by After the Deadline’s “corrections.” This isn’t exactly surprising when it comes to grammar checkers because they are at best useless and at worst harmful. But the way in which we rely on technology threatens to undermine our own writing. Insecure writers might be tricked into believing that After the Deadline’s suggestions are legit. And that is the real problem with these programs. Their potential to do more harm than good is a ratio approaching one since it’s almost impossible for them to do good.

Finally, I’d just like to add that when I used After the Deadline on this post, two terms were underlined in the explanation of hidden verbs:

“A hidden verb (aka nominalization) is a verb made into a noun. They often need extra words to make sense. Strong verbs are easier to read and use less words.”

The program says that nominalization isn’t a word and that I should write “fewer words” instead of “less words.” But that is a quote from the program itself! If even the makers of After the Deadline can’t (or won’t) follow their own guidelines, why should you?

And so I have decided to destroy the machine. Feeding this next piece of prose into your grammar checker is equivalent to setting its controls for the heart of the sun.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

 

[Update – Feb. 28, 2011] It’s always nice when someone with first-hand knowledge weighs in on the discussion. In this case, former After the Deadline developer Raphael Mudge was kind enough to stop by and leave his thoughts, to which I responded below.

[Update – Mar. 16, 2012] I heard from the WordPress staff about why they chose to incorporate After the Deadline into their software. Actually, I was directed to the post on the WordPress.com blog about the incorporation. I’m a bit disappointed in this, however. First, although the WordPress staff tells me that “There are many reasons to explain why we chose this service to help WordPress.com users with their writing, but you can read our announcement post for the full details,” their post is not full of “details.” Second, neither the email I got nor the WordPress blog post addresses any of the problems with automatic grammar or spell checkers. Oh well.

But most importantly, I don’t think the author of the post is serious when he says he “was blown away” by After the Deadline. Did he run his own post through there? What the hell did it look like before he did? And why didn’t he accept all of the suggestions? And judging by the comments on the post, when will a psychologist do a study with an automatic grammar checker with incorrect suggestions just to see how blindly people will obey their master?

By the way, running this update through AtD underlines “incorporate,” “was directed,” and “all of the.” Feel free to guess why if you really have nothing better to do.

 

 

 

*So much for only using said to carry dialogue, amIright, Elmore? Way to go, Virginia, you dope.

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