Grammar Check Choke

Forgive the dearth of posts, you brave two people who browse this blog from time to time. A month ago, I took over four additional classes, all of them unfamiliar to me, on top of my usual hectic load. Blogging just hasn’t had time.

I did make sure, however, to save the sad results of our Advanced Grammar sentence logic experiment with Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker. Previously we had examined what Word did with “that” vs. “which” clauses in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and Frankenstein–lots of “which”s flagged as needing commas or “that”s. Word reliably questions the construction of such clauses.

But how does it do with general sentence-level issues beyond passive voice (which we already had discussed as sometimes useful and necessary for cohesion and meaning)?

Inspired by “My New Teaching Partner? Using the Grammar Checker in Writing Instruction” by Dorothy Fuller and Reva Potter, we each decided to come up with two different sentences:

  • a sentence 100% guaranteed to trigger the colored Dread Squiggle of Syntax Error
  • a sentence designed to fool the software

Well. It went even worse than I had expected.

Here is a list of all of the sentences that students shared. I typed them into a Word document, projected on the classroom screen, and we waited to see which ones got a reaction. The only one flagged is in green:

  • Yesterday I start class.
  • Cat had gone to the market next morning.
  • If you isn’t got two kids by 21 then you goanna die alone.
  • When all you have, purple dress.
  • From yesterday to today, my stomach still hurts.
  • Bob sit on the porch and drank his tea.
  • They done did the wrong thing.
  • I like going to the store to buy snacks but I’m always broke my mom gives me money.
  • The dog ate the tiny bits of paper from the store I bought.
  •  I know I’ll past the fourth grade on the third try.

Clearly, many of them were going for shifts in verb tense and time frame, which, as we had discussed, Word is not great at catching. But it marked neither the blatant slang of “you isn’t got” nor the non-existent word “goanna.” It didn’t notice the common homophone error of “past” for “passed.” Students were amused, then increasingly horrified as both their 100% error-filled and designed-to-fool-the-checker sentences sailed through as OK.

“Write something completely wrong,” they begged. So I typed this…

Jump window black dog.

…and Word was silent.

This is great if you’re into free verse poetry. It’s not so great if you’re a student relying on word processors to help you avoid the wrath of the teacher’s pen. It was an enlightening (if sobering) activity as we moved to the end of Advanced Grammar.

What make the grammar check tick? Who know? Not mine errors.


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