A Grammarian’s Love/Hate Relationship to Microsoft Word

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OK, I am by no means “perfect” at grammar and style (who is?), but having tutored for a long time, taught English to speakers of other languages, and endured the misfortune of having a penchant for foreign women whose secondary and tertiary languages are English, which, admittedly, somehow results in a grammar lesson at least once a week, I think I know a bit about grammar.

Even when I write paragraph-long sentences.

And fragments.

Because I know the rules, such as not beginning sentences with “because,” that Word somehow doesn’t flag for some reason unbeknownst to me, yet watch it squiggly-underline any nonrestrictive relative clause using “which” that is lacking commas or recommend the deletion of a comma before “that,” for “that” should be used for restrictive clauses.

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Yet, as McGee and Ericsson point out, modern style guides are actually far less binary and restrictive (wonk wonk) and it is not uncommon to find professionally published articles whose authors maintain a more flexible view on grammar. In fact, our beloved MSGC (Microsoft Grammar Check) is a bit mysterious in the way it determines the “correctness” of a sentence. Are we talking about Shrunk & White, the “classic”? There is something ironic about every construction of passive voice being flagged by MSGC, even if the passive form isn’t necessarily bad at all. <== Might I note that MSGC failed to notice the passive voice I just used. Perhaps because the sentence was too complex for the program.

However, it DID highlight “…actually far less binary and restrictive” as a “colloquialism.”

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Of course, for those whom “Standard Academic English” is second nature, it is easy to ignore MSGC. If I accidentally overlooked something I wouldn’t otherwise do, or if I hadn’t intended on splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, MSGC can point it out and I may consider it. And however you look at it, MSGC can be very helpful because you know what, you might have written something that would make anyone in his or her right mind say:

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Microsoft Word drives me crazy sometimes because it keeps highlighting non-mistakes and what is otherwise perfectly good English.

However, one of the more “serious” issues about MSGC, as McGee and Ericsson mention, is that because it is the dominant word processor on the market, its grammar checker is regulating language and policing the way we write. It is an extension of the “elite.”

For me, honestly, I think its arbitrary, stuffy rules are more troubling than the hegemonic linguistic structures it supports. Modern iterations of Word allow you to determine how formal you want your spell/grammar checker to be, so some of these complaints will eventually be phased out with future releases. I also wonder how dominant Microsoft Word will remain, particularly with Web 2.0 and many of our online activities, not to mention composing processes, moving to “the cloud.”

I wonder if we might have a “transparent” process of spell/grammar checking based on results indexed from the Internet? It sounds like it would be tough, but I think we have the technology to do it. Or perhaps you can download “style guides” into your browser-based word processor and select one based on the genre/audience of the text you’re composing. Or maybe, like Wikipedia, where everyone is free to contribute to articles (creating a democratic, shared body of knowledge – at least in theory), we can have a “worldwide English style guide” that anyone and everyone can add to, reaching a consensus and finding a balance across all Anglophone cultures.

As for why I don’t think MSGC’s enforcement of SAE is that big of a deal, it’s because I think that MSGC is a contributor to the problem, not the source of it. MSGC is simply coding that attempts to “flag” what some old school style guide out there said was “correct” grammar and style. If those style guides were more liberal with which to begin (ha, ha), then MSGC wouldn’t be as much of a pain in the ass as it is. And in some ways, isn’t it helpful? Sure, we ought to be critical of it, but it isn’t perfect, and I’m glad it isn’t, or you and I wouldn’t have tenable jobs!

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Microsoft Word’s grammar check function is annoying, but I could care less.

(Didn’t catch that one, MSGC!)

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4 comments on “A Grammarian’s Love/Hate Relationship to Microsoft Word

  1. Ileana
    I do like your posts! You make complex or controversial ideas easy and fun to read about. You speak true wisdom here: “Microsoft Word drives me crazy sometimes because it keeps highlighting non-mistakes and what is otherwise perfectly good English.” Amen to that. However, it doesn’t all have to be evil. I like your idea of collaborating in a “worldwide English style guide,” and maybe MS, Google and Wikipedia could team up to make it happen.
    In the meantime, I say we tell our students to turn off the grammar checker! I totally agree that it works against us in the composition classroom.
    How much does MSGC consider the rhetorical nature of composition studies? I wonder how much rhetorical awareness the MS folks program into the software. Style and grammar are rhetorical choices to be made by a writer and, most of the time, a good sentence cannot be measured in terms of right/wrong binaries. I wonder how much rhetorical awareness is programmed into MSGC? If you guys haven’t come across it yet, check out this essay by Laura R. Micciche, “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar”:

    https://www.csun.edu/~bashforth/305_PDF/305_PDF_Grammar/MakingACaseForRhetoricalGrammar_Micciche.pdf

    I guarantee you that most of her very poignant and insightful concerns are not addressed by the developers of MS Word.
    A final “aside”: McGee and Ericsson do end their article with a fascinating notion: to put MSGC under the scrutiny and microscope of the classroom. If only I had time in my class, I would incorporate some exercises like this. I suppose I can design a couple of brief experiments to perform in class before I tell my students to turn the damn thing off!

    • Thanks, Renato! I appreciate your positive feedback. I believe grammar has its place in the classroom (in regards to readability) and let’s face it, when grammar is completely off, it can become such an issue that local issues become global issues as far as the expression of ideas is concerned. Rather than trying to kill the “idea” of teaching grammar, I think there has to be a more moderate approach — descriptive, rhetorical grammar, versus prescriptive, schoolmarm grammar.

      I have read the article by Micciche, although it has been a while, and I think she makes excellent points. Thank you for providing the link — I should reread it.

      I also agree with you about the idea of putting MSGC under scrutiny in the classroom, but I can only imagine a class having the time to do that if sociolinguistic justice/deconstructing privileged discourses was the theme of the course. I don’t know if I would go as far as to tell my students to turn it off, but we could, perhaps provide clear instruction on “intelligent ways” to use MSGC.

      Then again, with the rise of Google Docs and other competing composing platforms, I wonder how relevant this entire thread of conversation will remain.

  2. As usual, this is another funny and insightful posting! I found myself laughing aloud about MSGC and its selective enforcement of grammar rules. I also found your discussion of McGee and Ericsson’s concerns interesting:

    “However, one of the more ‘serious’ issues about MSGC, as McGee and Ericsson mention, is that because it is the dominant word processor on the market, its grammar checker is regulating language and policing the way we write. It is an extension of the ‘elite’.”

    You bring up a good point of discussion: Is MSGC hegemonic, or merely helping folks gain access to the “culture of power,” (Delpit, 1988)? Or is it a bit of both? As you’ve brought up in class, these scholars talk a good game about the hegemony of Standard English grammar, but are they interested in hiring someone who doesn’t have command of SE grammar? Will they pass a student who only has knowledge of a “non-standard” dialect’s grammar? I think we all know the answers to these questions.

    An aside: Is that Weird Al replacing “less” with “fewer”? I love him, and his music video, “Word Crimes.”

    Another sidebar: I love Micciche! I remember her from our group grammar presentation in ENG 700.

  3. Hey Ileana,

    I love your post and the visual images. You always have very engaging pictures that provoke deeper critical thinking and your commentary is critical and well developed. I especially love your screenshot of Microsoft Words and the Grammar Check. When I see a squiggly line, I stop instantly to change what I wrote. There are times when I will change the meaning to satisfy the Grammar Check and I don’t know why I care so much about removing the squiggly line. After multiple attempts, I will click on the Ignore Suggestion button just to get rid of the squiggly line. I could see how I put grammar ahead of my message. Great post.

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