Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE 140

RightWriter. (spelling and grammar checker) (Evaluation)
by Howard Millman

Software applications that help you decide what to say and how to say it, assisting in the creative process, need further development. However, applications like Que Software's RightWriter, which deal mostly with the mechanical structure of a document, will help you grammatically.

To a lesser degree, this program will also provide assistance in increasing the creative quality of your documents by flagging cliches, slang, awkward phrases, and jargon. Such prose violations often come under the catchall heading of style.

RightWriter uses 5500 grammar rules to check for signs of weak, confusing, or incorrect writing. Reportedly, RightWriter detects more than 25,000 kinds of writing errors (not all, one would hope, in a single document).

The program offers three primary levels of word processor compatibility. With wide-selling word processors such as WordPerfect, Microsoft Word,and WordStar, you can conveniently hot key directly into and out of RightWriter. This spares you from the save-exit-load-exit-reload routine.

With a dozen or so other popular word processors (XyWrite, PC-Write, PFS series, Bank Street, and so on), RightWriter will analyze documents created in their native format. However, you must be in RightWriter to initiate the error-detection process (save, exit, load, and so on). Finally, RightWriter will even accept text in ASCII format.

RightWriter creates, analyzes, and records its comments in a duplicate copy of your document. You have the option to name the clone file. When RightWriter finds a problem, it inserts a comment to flag the word or punctuation in question and usually offers a suggestion to solve the problem.

Comments are numbered, so if you need more information to understand the program's objection to what you've written or more help with solving the problem, you can turn directly to examples in the manual.

RightWriter's comments follow its analysis format. You can expect commentary on such classic mistakes as subject-verb mismatch, run-on sentences, misuse of verbs and articles (which sounds more like a felony than a faux pas), and a whole range of punctuation problems.

RightWriter's usage rules help you avoid cliches, archaic language, sexist terms, and jargon. In addition, its usage rules address some fascinating and common errors such as modified absolutes ("almost perfect"), redundancy ("two twins") and euphemisms. Style comments alert you to a wide range of possible errors including passive voice, ambiguity, overly long sentences, and negativism.

Usually you aren't aware of the slips; you've allowed them to creep into your writing style over a period of years. So just as your English teacher once did, RightWriter draws your attention to the errors. In time, you'll know them well enough to avoid them.

After completing its analysis, RightWriter presents a report that summarizes eight aspects of your work. Readability notes the ease of reading your text expressed in terms of education level. For example, a document with a readability index of 8.5 will make sense to anyone who reached the eighth grade or higher. Generally, business writing should fall within the sixth- to tenth-grade levels.

Strength measures the number of cliches, negative expressions, and passive terms you've used. The index's parameters range from 0 to 1. Cliches seriously diminish your quality of writing. You should avoid them like the plague.

An analysis of the number of adjectives and adverbs helps you avoid extremes of choppiness and verbosity. Jargon, too, merits its own section, pinpointing buzz words and similar problems. Sentence Structure recommends general changes to improve a document's cadence and flow. Word List flags words that might be misspelled, abstruse, slang, or sexist.

Word Frequency recaps all the words in the document and the number of times you've used each word. Statistics quantifies a multitude of sentence and word statistics such as word count, number of sentences, number of unique words, average number of words per sentence, and the number of syllables per word.

To appeal to both grammatical purists and the casually concerned, RightWriter allows you to include or exclude any or all of the rules it uses to analyze your grammar, punctuation, usage, and style components. Likewise, the Customize Summary option enables you to pick and choose from the summary's eight components to report on only those you want included or considered.

RightWriter's simple, self-explanatory menus deal equally with understanding the techniques of measuring clarity and running the program. You can start RightWriter directly from the command line. Add the requisite arguments, and you can control where it creates and what it names the marked-up duplicate copy.

One minor problem that arose concerned transferring corrections from the annotated copy back to the original. Some (but not all) of RightWriter's warning flags warrang altering your original text. Ideally, RightWriter should allow you to make the corrections you agree with and transfer the corrected text in a batch back into the original document. However, it doesn't work that way.

Instead, you must use a split screen (scrolling the corrected copy in one window while correcting the original in the other) or print out the corrected copy and use it as a guide to enter corrections in the original document.

After some experimentation, I decided to read the comments, make the changes in the text of the clone file, delete all comments, and then use the corrected copy as my original. Although I'd love to take credit for this technique, RightWriter anticipated it and contains a menu command that strips out the comments in a batch mode.

Detecting strictly mechanical errors (unpaired parentheses, missing periods, missing quotation marks) is easy. To detect the more subtle errors, RightWriter uses two artificial intelligence (Al) techniques to locate and correct writing errors.

The first, a parser, analyzes a sentence and then breaks it into its major components. After identifying dependent and independent clauses, the parser subdivides each clause into its subject and predicate and continues to analyze every word in every sentence to identify its purpose. The second Al technique uses what's popularly called fuzzy logic to compare the use of words and phrases against programmed guidelines. This, in turn, generates RightWriter's suggestions for correcting what it perceives as errors.

Despite the extensive data crunching RightWriter performs as it analyzes every word, it chewed through a 6000-word document in less than two minutes, providing some helpful suggestions and some comments I felt I could do without. RightWriter and I would seem to have the same relationship that many students share with their English teachers--I'm happy to have the assistance but still willing to break a few grammatical rules for the sake of more distinctive, snappier writing.