October 26, 2007

Monkeys will check your grammar

Ash Asudeh sends this quotation (found through the graces of DaringFireball) from Jason Snell talking about new features in Leopard, the new release of Apple's Mac OS X:

"What I'd never pick: Grammar Check—at last, the most useless feature ever added to Microsoft Word has been added to Mac OS X! With this feature, an infinite number of monkeys will analyze your writing and present you with useless grammar complaints while not alerting you to actual grammatical errors because computers don't understand grammar. Sure, it sounds great on a box—or a promotional Web site—but anyone who knows, knows that grammar checking is a sham. Just say no."

Spot on, Jason. Nice to see some intelligent ranting about this. Computer grammar checking really is terrible. The programs in question devote most of their effort to trying to catch the most easily diagnosed prescriptive shibboleths; for example, it is not too difficult to spot a sequence consisting of "to" followed by an adverb and a verb, so that a split infinitive can be complained about. They also do basically brainless things like looking for masculine third-person singular pronouns (he, him, his, himself) so they can warn you that perhaps you should say "him or her". Since these tasks are so easy, they score some successes there, without being of much use. But it's extremely rare for them to catch anything subtle, tricky, or genuinely helpful.

They can't really even help with standard nonsense like discouraging the use of passives (see this page for a listing of Language Log posts on the passive), because they are basically hopeless at identifying passive clauses — even more hopeless than college-educated American adults, which is not setting the bar very high. They mostly can't help with subject-verb agreement errors because they are unable to spot which noun the verb should be agreeing with. And they cannot warn you off singular antecedents for they, because they can't figure out which antecedent a given pronoun has. The things they are good at, like spotting the occasional the the typing error, are very easy there are very few of them. For the most part, accepting the advice of a computer grammar checker on your prose will make it much worse, sometimes hilariously incoherent. If you want an amusing way to whiling away a rainy afternoon, take a piece of literary prose you consider sublimely masterful and run the Microsoft Word™ grammar checker on it, accepting all the suggested changes.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 26, 2007 12:56 PM