Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 142 / JULY 1992 / PAGE 78

Taking care of the tense. (grammar checkers for desktop publishers)
by Robert Bixby

Desktop publishers need a ready resource for style and grammatical advice. I consider myself lucky in this regard because I live in a university town where there are plenty of people experienced in professional copy editing. We have a city library with an excellent reference desk staff. And on top of this, I work for a magazine of national reputation. Any questions I have regarding style or usage are a telephone call away from being answered. In fact, I might spend less time getting the question answered than deciding which of my many resources is the most appropriate to use under the circumstances.

It's a lonelier task elsewhere in the world, particularly for a desktop publisher who doesn't have a community of writers and editors. Most writers end up editing their own work as they turn to publishing, and in that situation, it isn't what you don't know that's dangerous, but what you know for sure that may be wrong.

That last sentence was left knotty on purpose. It's long and difficult and full of dependent clauses and seemingly antecedentless pronouns. It's an example of the kind of sentence that gives a writer/editor fits. Is it right? Is it wrong? If it's wrong, how do you fix it? Sometimes it's all right to make small grammatical mistakes, if doing so improves the flow of the writing. But someone has to draw the line between bad writing and a refreshing departure from the strictures of the language. The author is the worst person for that job.

And then there are the mistakes that everyone makes, particularly if he/she/they didn't have the kind of English instruction that seems to have become obsolete--agreement between subject and verb and between pronoun and antecedent. Here's a simple test to check your knowledge: Is data singular, or are data plural? (Actually, it/they can be either.)

If you face these questions every day, you need a grammar checker. Grammar checkers will save you from embarrassment, from error, and from obfuscation. Despite what might seem to be a liberal climate in the writing world, where virtually anything is considered acceptable syntax, serious judgements are made about you and your intelligence based on whether your writing follows the rules of standard English. You can say, "It don't matter to me" and be well thought of. But if you write it in anything but dialogue, you'll lose all you authority.

On the other hand, if you don't face questions about grammar every day in your editing, you're in even greater need of a grammar checker. The English language has more catches than a mile of barbed wire. If they aren't snagging you regularly, that might indicate a surpassing knowledge of the language, but it's more likely that you aren't noticing the problems because you aren't aware of them.

True, the work done by grammar checkers is sometimes too complex for them. The more creative you are in your word use, the more likely they are to misunderstand your intent and improperly flag a sentence. That was the kernel from which many of the derisive early reviews grew: Reviewers, usually professional writers with years of experience, would run their copy through the checker and then poke fun at the results. Checkers have improved to the extent that professionals often use them routinely. The chief improvements (beyond better programming) include allowing you to shut off one feature or another and providing specialized feature presets for checking technical writing, business writing, casual writing, and so forth.

In addition to detecting actual errors in your writing, however, a grammar checker can catch you when you lapse into passive voice. Believe it or not, even if your sentences hew to all of the rules of good grammar, they can still be terrible sentences if they're written in passive voice. If you write "The window was broken, and the house was burglarized" instead of "The burglar smashed the window and ransacked the house," you're guilty of using passive voice. Grammar checkers will alert you to this bad habit and force you to mend your ways.

A grammar checker won't necessarily make you a better writer. But a grammar checker can be your best friend when it comes to making copy as clean as possible.