Checking Computer Grammar Checkups

IF anyone thinks professional writing is fun, let them see my computer screen.

It's displaying a chart with four bars extending to the left. One bar rates the readability of Lincoln's Gettysburg address at 64. The Hemingway short story rates an even higher 89. The typical insurance contract gets a low 45.

The fourth bar is my story, just checked by the new grammar checker produced by Reference Software called Grammatik 5. I score a 49.


Must be a bug in the software. On to WordStar's new Correct Grammar for Windows, version 2.0. Like Grammatik, Correct Grammar goes over my story line by line, offering suggestions. Yes, C.G., I did write "yoiur" instead of "your." A click of the computer mouse corrects it. No, C.G., I know the difference between "lesson" and "lessen" and I used the right one. Yes, that sentence seems to run on, but it's perfectly legitimate. Trust me, C.G.

At the end, Correct Grammar hands me my grade.


My Flesch Reading Ease score is "Fairly Difficult." It would take a college sophomore to understand my story. Just to press home that point, Correct Grammar tells me that only 54 percent of United States adults can read at that level.

Devastating! I must write pretty murky stuff.

After months of these discouraging scores, I changed operating systems and stopped using Correct Grammar.

Then I met John Thiesmeyer: college English professor; programmer of a writing-guide tool called Editor. He soothed my psyche.

"There is no evidence that readability scores can improve your writing," he says. "We think they're awful. The student who's written a really nice 30-word sentence and is told, 'You're doing it wrong, kid; cut it in two' is being badly mishandled."

Right on, Mr. Thiesmeyer!

Editor, which is distributed by the Modern Language Association, uses a different approach from that of the grammar checkers. It numbers each sentence of the text, then creates a file with suggestions. Each suggestion refers to a particular numbered sentence. So to understand what's going on, writers have to print out their text and compare it with the suggestion file.

That's clunky compared with the interactive grammar checkers. They let users correct mistakes as they go along. The idea behind Editor, Thiesmeyer says, is to force people to go back and think through their writing.

Not surprisingly, Editor is aiming for the student and academic market; Grammatik and Correct Grammar are meant for the business world.

Grammatik bills itself as "the easiest way to improve your writing." Its real benefit, however, is to keep writers from embarrassing themselves, says Reference Software's chief executive officer Don Emery. Grammar checkers spot obvious mistakes. They also have an uncanny ability to spot wordiness. But sometimes they are incorrect.

The revised Correct Grammar for Windows and the completely rewritten Grammatik 5 are better than their predecessors. When I tested old and new versions on a recent story I had written, the new C.G. cut its incorrect messages from 14 to six. Incorrect Grammatik messages went from six to eight, but the mistakes were a little more forgivable in the new version.

Advanced users can customize both programs, which should help cut down on the mistakes the programs make. The software can help weak writers and people who like the assurance of an impartial grammar check for their prose.

Still, I yearn for the day when Correct Grammar knows when I've used "lesson" correctly, when Grammatik can tell that "firm" in the phrase "defense firm" is a noun and not a verb.

What's that, C.G.? The word "Ack" may be a misspelled proper noun? Maybe I meant "Oak?" You've got to cut me a little slack. "Ack" is expressive. "Oak" is not. Keep this up, C.G., and you'll drive me out of this profession. I can always drive a bread truck for a living.

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