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!)

Text Manipulation

af3a6bae13b55d8f4bfe545ced9de53bd42c5992ecb541183568a5126baa931aThroughout my short academic career, I’ve noticed the different interpretations of what ‘writing’ actually is: a report of facts that proves an argument, an organization of ideas that supports a particular stance, a creative gathering of words that illustrates a point by exhibiting artistry through words. Writing is such a hard thing to do and I feel like its difficulty is constantly overlooked because of its everyday use and presence. The inclusion of technology does make the act of writing and teaching it even more difficult, but of course there are gains through this added difficulty: easier access to resources, more ways of creating new content, and having templates to actually write on.     


I’m beginning to notice a pattern. There’s always seems to be some sort of trade off(s) when implementing technology into the writing classroom.  The three readings for this week (Johnson-Eilola’s “The Database and the Essay: Understanding Composition as Articulation,” Devoss and Rosati’s “It wasn’t me, was it? Plagiarism and the Web,” and McGee and Ericson’s “The Politics of the Program: MS WORD as the Invisible Grammarian”) all touch on how the use of technology affects student writing through an outside influence that determines the “rules” that need to be followed when writing, as well as appropriating the sources that are made available on the internet and how it could and should be used in their writing. There are different layers that come into writing: having correct grammar and other writing mechanics, finding and incorporating research, and being creative and original. An issue that all three articles address is for composition teachers to manage these three layers of writing in the classroom for their students.


37016815Although I have yet taught a class on my own, I do have plenty experience in tutoring. A constant reoccurrence I noticed with my tutees is their concern of their writing having correct grammar. I had one particular student who would always point out specific sentences that they had difficulty constructing. Every time I asked him what was wrong with his sentence, he would always reply, “Ugh… I’m not sure. Word underlined it with a blue line. I think my grammars wrong.” In “The Politics of the Program: MS WORD as the Invisible Grammarian,” McGee and Ericson address how the immediate grammar corrections in Microsoft Word can be detrimental to a student’s process in becoming better writers because it stifles them as they write (454). I do see how grammar check in word processors, like Microsoft Word, can be helpful, mainly by showing students a mistake and how to fix it. The issue with this is that it potentially shifts a student’s focus of their writing completely on the sentence level. In Devose and Rosati’s article on plagiarism, they claim that a major reason why students are prone to plagiarising is “because of the often-appearing-unconscious cultural principles of written work. Cultures vary in how writing, authorship, identity, individualism, ownership rights, and personal relationships are perceived, and these variances in values and approaches to text affect student writing” (195). In academic culture, many first year students mistakenly equate good writing with correct grammar. This false fixation on correct grammar push students to “have a near desperate need for certainties and “right” answers; a computer program gives them those certainties more readily than all-too-human English teachers” (McGee and Ericson 462).


Further branching off of Devose and Rosati’s take on plagiarism through students’ perception of “often-appearing-unconscious cultural principles of written work,” a lot of students do not realize it when they are plagiarizing (197). Research is a such an important aspect to academic writing and students always feel pressured in reaching every aspect of it. In their article, Devose and Rosati use Howard’s term, “patchworking,” to further accentuate the importance for students to use different sources and texts to incorporate in their writing, but also the faults that it can lead students because of their lack of guidance on the matter. Patchworking “allows students a place to borrow from text, manipulate it, and work through new concepts by piecing their writing with the original work” (194). In a way, I can see connections of patchworking with Johnson-Eilola’s use of intertextuality and articulation theory -using bits and pieces of other works to connect and to create something that is original with new meaning; “If we start to understand connection as a form of writing, then articulation theory can offer us a way to understand the “mere” uncreative act of selection and connection as very active and creative” (226). Although academic writing may simply come off as data collecting and reporting, there are creative ways of structuring so.   

An interesting in Johnson-Eilola’s article is his example of Fair Use as a corporate example to writing. Although this may be a far stretch, YouTube and hip hop (possibly contemporary music in general) always come to mind when the concept of Fair Use comes to mind. As an avid YouTube watcher, I’ve noticed a lot of my favorite content creators speaking out on the Fair Use policy with YouTube, mainly addressing how the company isn’t honoring its own policy. In regards to hip hop, practically every song samples beats from other songs of course paying the respective studio the rights to use the sample for profit. One of my favorite rappers right now is Chance the Rapper and he’s known for sampling a ton of content without the actual rights to the song. To counteract Fair Use, he’s actually an independent artist and usually puts all his music for free.    




Bolded Plagiarism: Academic Writing and Grammar Instruction in light of the Corporate Spectacle

We can’t separate writing from the economic sphere. I think the academic borrows much from the ecclesiast, pouring over obscure tomes, debating in scholastic fashion matters of abstruse import.  Displaced not just by science, but also by corporate value systems, the practical role to be played by the humanities, including even the disciplinary parent of literary study, rhetoric, of course remain in question.  Teaching to digital literacy offers an avenue toward greater relevance, to being sure one’s work at least theorizes, if not realizes, a relation to the economic sphere.  And today, the internet is recognized as having a relation; the mounting of the web-based pageant costs around $200 Billion a year.

We’ve been convinced to chip in, and someone is getting paid, why not a few comp teachers?

Rhet/Comp seems to want to embrace the internet as its own, or least claim it as a semantic domain of inquiry, though the academy neither created the technology nor has any means of controlling it over its production of texts. Which can be good:  It seems clear in light of web-based writing that thesis-driven writing in a deductive form is most native to the dead meadows of teacher-directed assignments, those situation-less exercises in rhetoric.

But of course, the academic values in English, bearing as it does historical links to religious-textual contemplation and hermeneutics, surely remain at odds with exchange value that dominates late capitalism’s representational spectacle. I think those that find the pill of our field’s recent protean shifts most bitter are those poetical minds who transubstantiated the value of the soul into the secular clothes of the “individual experience” of authors and readers, hoping to retain a certain hermetic quality to the whole conversation, unsullied certainly by market forces.  Perhaps the underlying prevalence of this attitude helps explain why might find ourselves having this conversation at all, trying to parse a verifiably present reality that threatens to eclipse our profession as a matter of course, or perhaps with in few more cycles of software development.

In defense of those averse to emplotting writing with economics, I suppose the parcelization of text within the bounds of individual works does mirror an intensification of commodification on all levels of society.  Yet [t]his shift is extremely important / because it opens up a path away from thinking of intellectual property as a “work”/ –as a relatively extended, coherent whole –/ and toward thinking of it as marketable chunks.  Don’t many of us working in academia experience market-driven thinking like this as an intrusion, especially if we came here willing to barter away material ambitions in exchange for some kind of escape?

Lest we polarize matters overmuch, let me note that the academy and the corporate-textual realms seem to share at least one point of affinity.  I am thinking of the underlying compulsion to participate in the discourses safeguarded by these different milieux.  Class:  “I’d like to hear you speak in class more!”/ Online: Like? Comment? In both cases, identities, even the most slipshod and hastily abandoned postures, create surfaces throughout which flow good old power, in all its capacities, both restrictive and generative.


Class:  The student’s contributions and fashioned artifacts are tracked by the attentive instructor (my grammar check just informed of the passive construction here — it is deliberate, not that I realized it until I hit spell check). Online:  When we write or act electronically, marketers swoon, or else scheme to calibrate their models, such as those that might [assume] users of their site move top-down.  We click to gaze upon ourselves and fellow travelers while corporate employees surveille such actions in sum.  We circulate minutia in digitized economies of affective approval, all of us etching upon palimpsestic spaces the silhouettes of identities, creating commerce through self-fashioning because such movement is what they extract value from.  Questions of form, property, and propriety aside, generating texts through more or less elaborate modes of copying and pasting increases our raw compositional output, as a society, each slippage and recombination now generating surplus value to be captured as profit.


We might regard the academic institution as a tool of extracting and maximizing extractable intellectual work from its participants.  In a semi-idealized world of exchange, rather than use value, the academic institution can always absorb more of the output it demands:  Through discourse and ritual it entices the formation of identities through which it can incite great feats of precisely this kind of activity.  If the academic institution is in decline, perhaps this is so because other social arrangements are coming to (1) more effectively entice identity-formation and (2) better maximize human output of a kind of intellectual work that is valued in exchange.

Rhet/Comp seems to seek to establish affinities with the forms of textual afforded by both the internet and computers more generally.  In a world of where school-based language instruction is largely prescriptive, we can hardly take the Computational Linguists who devise grammar checkers available in software like MS word to task for offering a “right” answer to grammatical questions.  Perhaps what rankles most is that corporate-mediated instruction, via software, will reach a mass audience of millions when sentence-level lessons in Composition, themselves notoriously fallible (I’m giving one the old college try tomorrow, in fact), tend to reach scores of learners at a time, at best.

Consider the irony:  As software-mediated grammar becomes more the norm, corporate-dispensed instruction will come closer to establishing a consistent vision of written English, thereby both usurping a previously academic prerogative — the adjudication of proper usage and syntax — with an astonishing ubiquity that the individual teacher, even as a handbook textbook author, could never achieve.  This only underscores the need for Rhet/Comp to follow, as best it can, the mutative course of technological innovation, or become irrelevant to the actual composing life of our society.


Curious about grammar instruction: common ground?

I have a strong response to McGee and Erickson’s essay on politics and MS Word and want to post something that makes a proposal and asks questions. The field of composition seems very rational and democratic in discussions of writing, but I observe a lot of conflict, political division, and polarization around the teaching of grammar. Although there is support in the field of stylistics for teaching grammar in context, as descriptive, and as part of that larger discussion of style, it seems that the majority of the field of composition wants to ignore grammar altogether as not contributing to better writing. However, my experience points to postsecondary teachers who teach grammar regularly and unsystematically (is it because of this lack of conversation within the field and the politicization of the topic?) and students who struggle with grammar, often avoiding content to deal with grammar issues. If the grammar checkers are students’ only coherent source for grammar instruction while writing, students use it. So McGee and Erickson offer good advice that teachers familiarize themselves with grammar checkers and talk about considering the settings of MS Word software. My question is–aren’t we missing the point? In a paper I wrote, I found support for finding an approach to teaching grammar that is descriptive, not prescriptive. If grammar engages student writing at the time when he or she is engaged in writing a paper, my experience in a tutoring center shows that students are interested.  My research shows that process, content, and sentence logic may not be all that far apart, and I’m curious what ideas, feedback, experiences-pro and con-others might have regarding grammar instruction or lack thereof.