Here begins a series on grammar checkers and editing software. We will be talking about other pieces of software on the market and the caveats of using them, along with our advice. We won’t necessarily be doing these articles one after the other, but we’ll try to do them fairly close together.

From Scott:

We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a writing project, whether it’s a speech, a project for school, or a novel. As you’re blazing along, you look back at your words, only to find that green squiggly line highlighting something you just typed. Is the word processor right? Is your grammar incorrect? Or did you type it correctly, only to have your word processor misinterpret your work? That’s the topic of today’s blog installment.

I’d like to start off by saying that I’m not picking on MS Word. It happens to be my primary word processor (although for novels, I have started using Scrivener, but that’s another story). I also believe it is a great program. However, since Word is one of the most widely used word processors available, it made sense to base this blog entry on the facets of the grammar checking tool indigenous to MS Word. With that said, let’s take a look.

[NOTES FROM RICK: As I was going over this blog post in MS Word, I found some green squiggly lines under a few things Scott had typed. In his first paragraph, it flagged “Is the word processor right?” as a non-standard question, which is wrong. In paragraph it wanted to change “start off” to “start” (as a simplification, which is okay); it wanted to hyphenate “grammar-checking” (correct); and change “take a look” to “look” (again a simplification.) It got 3 out of 4, but I have no idea why it thought the first one was a non-standard question.]

The first MS Word error that comes to mind is a problem with dialogue. When a character is speaking, she won’t necessarily speak in complete sentences. This is an intentional and perfectly acceptable practice, but Word will tell you that you’ve made a mistake. My advice in this case is to take another look at what you’ve typed and make sure it is what you wanted. If everything is typed as planned, ignore the error warning.

Another major source of false errors is in the use of conjunctions. Consider the following passage from my thriller novel, Martyr’s Inferno. I included the entire paragraph to put it all into context, but the error found by Word comes in the last sentence:

Movement caught Jim’s eye. With his face pressed against the glass, he looked to his left. A bearded man in a filthy white shirt stood at the far end of the cafeteria. Several hostages sat along the wall in front of him, facing Jim. The man carried a semiautomatic pistol in each hand. Jim snapped his fingers to catch Matt’s attention, held up one finger, then pointed to where the armed man stalked back and forth.

MS Word believes that using the conjunction “then” in this case, by itself, is wrong. If you follow the suggestion from Word, you would substitute “and then” for “then.” In actuality, either form is acceptable, but the way I wrote it flows much more smoothly than:

Jim snapped his fingers to catch Matt’s attention, held up one finger, and then pointed to where the armed man stalked back and forth.

I could also have gone with just the word “and” in this case. Interestingly, Word has no problem with that form. If I had used “and” instead of “then,” Word would not have indicated a problem.

The use of brand names, such as Word, can also create a problem. In the last sentence of the previous paragraph, “Word” is a proper noun that is used as the subject of the last clause. However, the program doesn’t see “Word” as a proper noun, so the phrasing of the sentence appears fragmented. For that reason, the entire sentence is underlined in green. The same problem can occur in your writing, especially in the genres of technological thrillers and science fiction. If you create a new technology that uses a common noun for its name, expect Word to pepper you with green squiggly lines.

[RICK SAYS: Yep, I saw it too. The problem, of course, is that it doesn’t see Word as a product name. If you add “the grammar checker in” before “Word,” then it’s happy.]

How about a case where changing your words to comply with MS Word’s suggestion could completely change the meaning of what you wrote? Let’s look at this example from Martyr’s Inferno, where the characters are watching a news broadcast:

[RICK NOTE: In the last sentence, word underlined “a news” and thought it should be just “news.” The reason it thinks omitting the “a” would make it correct is because is doesn’t recognize “news” as an adjective. perhaps it think that you simply watch “news” (as a noun) and doesn’t see it as an adjective. That’s because nearly all of the uses of it as an adjective have been absorbed into single words: newspaper, newsboy. And uses such as news reporter are absorbed into the one word “reporter,” which means the same thing.]

“According to Detective Lieutenant Joe Beeson, head of a joint Chicago PD and FBI task force, a lengthy investigation concluded with the arrests of several members of the Lorenzo crime family, including the man many consider to be the family’s ‘godfather,’ Anthony Lorenzo. Charges in the case include extortion, racketeering, bribery of government officials, operating a prostitution ring, gambling, and homicide.”

In the last sentence, Word suggested that I should insert “and” before the word “bribery.” It would not be grammatically incorrect to do so, but it would change the meaning of the list of criminal charges. It would imply that the first three charges are all in relation to government officials, rather than just the bribery charge. If this was the case, not only would I need the word “and,” but to clarify the list I would add a semicolon after “bribery.” What I’m trying to point out here is that a knee-jerk reaction, which would have led me to make the correction without looking, would have resulted in a completely different meaning.

Homonyms can also confuse Word. The program would place a squiggly green line under the following sentence:

Anyone who believes him should quit. Present company excepted, of course.

Word will tell you that you have the wrong homonym. You should use “accepted,” not “excepted.” Either of the words would work in this case, grammatically speaking, but using “accepted” produces a completely different meaning for your passage. A change here would definitely confuse your readers.

Sometimes the suggestion comes without a logical explanation. In Martyr’s Inferno, one character told another, “He’s had time to stew on this one, so brace yourself.” According to Word, I should have used “you” instead of “yourself.” Interestingly, if you shorten the sentence to just the imperative, “Brace yourself,” Word has no problem with it.

One other critical area is the realm of words that confuse writers just as much as they do computers. “Lie” and “lay” are two of the main culprits. Perhaps the fact that “lay” is also the past tense of “lie” is part of the problem here. We recently had a blog entry concerning several other confusing word pairs, and I would wager that they all confuse Word to some degree.

So, should you turn off the grammar check completely? I would recommend that you not do that. Word can catch many of your grammatical errors, if you allow it to. The key is to use Word as a helpful tool, not a crutch. If you rely completely on your word processor to catch all of your grammatical mistakes, be prepared for a wave of bad reviews that criticize your grammar and editing. Ditto if you blindly follow the suggestions provided by Word.

Your best strategy is to continue editing as if no one—and nothing else—will check your work. Watch for those suggestions from Word, but use caution when implementing them. Always have someone else edit your project before you publish. And as always, when in doubt, check with the Chicago Manual of Style.

–Scott