The tyranny of the squiggly lines

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Now that the students of North America are heading back to school, settling in at their computers to write real papers for grades, and not just text messages for fun, they're facing again what we working-world grown-ups have put up with all summer.

I'm referring to those "helpers" (note those strategic quotation marks) that are a feature of Microsoft's widely used Word software. As you probably know, dear reader, they appear under selected bits of one's prose – and they do the selecting, alack! – to flag dubious spellings and signal subject-verb issues.

Talk about causing mixed feelings. Look, I learned this stuff in school. I don't want to argue with some snippy grammar gnome. And I know what I'm doing when I use an archaic verb ending. That's called literary allusion, you electronic nincompoop.

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On the other hand, I humbly acknowledge that the squiggly tyrants have saved me from embarrassment more than once, especially by signaling missing words or transposed letters.

Still, no one should use the grammar and spell-check help automatically.

One sign of abdication of authority is the not-so-smart apostrophe. In a phrase like "child of the '60s," for instance, if the writer has the "smart quotes" feature turned on, the software will interpret that initial apostrophe as an open single quote, and insert the mark shaped like a little "6." What's needed is the mark shaped more like a little "9," which serves as both the close single quote and the apostrophe.

This sounds arcane – OK, it is arcane – but once I noticed it, I started to see it surprisingly often, especially in ads. People are not standing up to their electronic helpers.

I hear myself sounding stern when I say that. And yet I remember, when computers replaced typewriters, how delighted I was to let a computer decide where to insert a hyphen to break a word.

Is relying on Word's helpers instead of thumbing through Strunk and White that much different from letting the computer hyphenate?

And besides, isn't it just wonderful that the computer lets you jump around and rewrite endlessly without that embarrassing xxx-ing out?

Well, of course. And yet – that seems to be the refrain here, doesn't it? – I can't think of anything in my education that did more to teach me to write on demand than the discipline of sitting down in a busy newsroom every morning, literally under the gaze of my boss, cranking a couple of sheets into a manual typewriter, and banging out a story from top to bottom in classic inverted pyramid form.

Another ancient discipline that seemed tedious at the time but has proved its value is sentence diagramming. For those who missed it on the first pass, a sentence diagram is a graphic representation of a sentence, showing the essentials – subject and verb – yet also accommodating all the add-ons: adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases.

Diagrams show how a sentence really works or why it doesn't. I've recently run across a quote from Gertrude Stein, "I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences."

I'm not sure I'd go that far. But there is evidence that today's students may be more interested in sophisticated use of language than they often get credit for.

Concern that new communications technologies are destroying teens' competence in English are unfounded, according to a Canadian linguist who has studied young people's instant-messaging habits and declared herself "blown away" by the high level of their language skill. As Sci-Tech Today summarized it: "if u think ur kids cant talk rite cuz of iming then we mite lol."

We can only hope the new skills they master will let them stand up to the tyranny of the red and green squiggly lines.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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