How Grammar Checkers Make Essays Worse

That green squiggle in word processing programs is likely to drive students crazy. What if a student doesn't know how to fix the grammar problem?

Just a generation ago, word processing programs were around, but they weren't ubiquitous, and they certainly didn't tell a user if he misspelled a word or wrote a sentence fragment. Today, though, as programmers continue to make their programs better, the applications are enhanced with features meant to save its users time and even embarrassment by suggesting spelling corrections and advising about grammar problems.

However, these programs will possibly never understand the intricacies of grammar, and while they can give suggestions, that is all they can do. It is still up to the user to determine if there really is an error and, if so, how to fix it.

Understand What the Grammar Errors are (or Aren't)

Word processing programs like Microsoft Word are designed to catch certain "infractions," but the advice it gives isn't always helpful or even what a student needs to work on. For example, there is a problem with this sentence:

  • But instead of just asking him to call her, she wound up talking for longer than she’d intended.

A word processing program will sometimes flag this sentence, telling the student it is a fragment. However, telling the student the sentence is a fragment is incorrect and unhelpful. The program will tell the student she needs to add more information to the sentence to make it complete. Actually, though, all the student needs to do is delete the coordinating conjunction (but) at the beginning of the sentence. Unfortunately, the grammar checker gives the student misleading and confusing advice, even though the sentence does need work.

So how does a student correct this error? If a student has wracked his brains and can't figure out how to fix the problem, he would do best to take his paper to a person who can help, whether that person be a trusted instructor, a tutor, a classroom peer, or a grammar-wise friend.

Rely on One's Gut Instincts (Sometimes)

Sometimes grammar checkers just give bad advice. For example, a grammar checker might flag this sentence (a variation of the one above):

  • Instead of just asking him to call her, she wound up talking for longer than she’d intended.

This time the grammar checker thinks the sentence is misusing the pronoun "him" and wants the student to instead write, "Instead of just asking he to call her." This is an instance where the grammar checker just doesn't "understand" the intricacies of English grammar. Technically, the sentence is okay because "asking him" is a correct use of the pronoun. However, some students might still wish to change the sentence, and the grammar checker can't give complete advice. The student can't simply change him to he and be done with it. The student needs to do more.
If a student feels confident with her abilities, she could change that sentence in one of two ways:

  • Instead of just asking for him to call her, she wound up talking for longer than she’d intended.
  • Instead of just asking that he call her, she wound up talking for longer than she’d intended.

Simply put, grammar checkers are unreliable and not always helpful. Spelling checkers are much better because words don't have as many variations and subtleties that grammar does.

What Should a Student Do?

The idea of a grammar checker is nice. Most students appreciate the idea that they can simply write an essay without having to worry about spelling and grammar. Unfortunately, though, the computer is not going to be of much help in the grammar arena. The student has a couple of options: One is to buy a trustworthy guide to grammar and learn from his mistakes; the second is to have a person look over his papers, a person who is reliable and well-versed (again, the student should try to learn from his errors as well).

Perhaps someday a grammar checker will be invented that really can correct grammar errors, and then students won't have to worry about the little rules they're not familiar with. Until then, though, nothing beats a human being's eyes on one's paper.

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