A Grammarian’s Love/Hate Relationship to Microsoft Word


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.


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:


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!


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

(Didn’t catch that one, MSGC!)

Consider Your Audience: Real Readers in a Virtual Age

Recently a professor told me to consider my audience. She said that my style was far too informal for a grad paper. I needed to consider what writing was appropriate for academic discourse. Academic discourse? Who did she think I was writing to? She was my only reader. I felt, then, that I could play around a little bit with the essay form, experiment a little. I even included a couple of allusions that only she would understand. It did not work. She wanted me, I realized, to speak into an imaginary space where scholars speak, not to each other, but into an imaginary library of information.

In comparison, in another class, we formed workshops for the papers, then posted our final papers in forums for everyone to read, and finally presented our papers to the class in a mock-conference. At last, I was writing to a real audience and it made all the difference. In that paper I also experimented with form, included jokes, and even wove in a couple of mysteries for the readers (since it was a class on mystery). My paper was academically rigorous, but it was also enjoyable. Some even said it was fun to read because I considered my audience, as I had been told all my school life to do.

In the article “Clive Thompson on the New Literacy,” the author claims that the internet is not killing our ability to write, it is reviving it. People are writing more than ever before through email, text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. More importantly, writers these days are more aware than ever of their audience. Before, people wrote for teachers and almost no one else. Now, Thompson says writers are composing for a much wider range of purposes and readers and they are adapting tone and technique to the audience. In “CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments”, the writer stresses that all writing is social. This was also true in the past; the difference now is that instead of writing for one person, the teacher, we are writing for our fellow students and possibly, as in this blog, others outside of the class and even outside of the university.

There has been a fundamental shift in the writing and learning process. Instead of doing research and composing only to prove something to a teacher, who presumably knows much more than the student and may have considered the issues in question, a student is sharing information, sharing their observations and insights with others in the class and, in turn, learning from them. It is the interaction, which is important. The digital age can create a revolution in academic writing. We do not have to write to an imaginary space called “academic discourse,” we can write for each other.