Helpful Technology?

A week or so ago, my trusty and ancient writing computer bit the dust, and I replaced it with a brand-new version, equipped with the latest version of Word.  After a fair amount of muttered expletives, I managed to figure out the peculiarities of the latest word processing miracle from Microsoft, or at least enough to do what I do.  Then I discovered that every time I closed the program, the new defaults for page setup and font that I’d established vanished when I opened the program.  My local techs couldn’t figure out why, but they did give me a support number for Microsoft.  The first tech was cheerful, and when we quickly established that I’d been doing all the right things, and she couldn’t figure it out either, she referred me to another tech.  In less than five minutes, he’d guided me through things and solved the problem – and it wasn’t my fault, but that of a piece of software installed by the computer manufacturer.  Word now retains my defaults, and we won’t talk about some of the other aspects of the program [since I’ve dwelt on those before].

All that brings me to the next incredible discovery – and that’s the blundering idiocy known as a grammar checker.  Unfortunately, the Microsoft people didn’t retain a wonderful feature of my old Word 7.0 – the separation of the spell-check and grammar features.  So… if I want to spell-check a document – which I do, because my typing is far from perfect – I must endure a grammar check.  Now… I wouldn’t mind an accurate grammar check, but what passes for a grammar check is an abomination for anyone who writes sentences more complex than subject-verb-object, and especially someone who likes a certain complexity in his prose. The truly stupid program [or programmers who wrote it] cannot distinguish between the subject in the main sentence and the subject in an embedded subordinate clause, and if one is plural and the other singular, it insists that the verb in the subordinate clause be changed to match the subject in the main sentence.

[It also doesn’t recognize the subjunctive, but even most copy-editors ignore that, so I can’t complain about that in a mere program.]  There are also a number of other less glaring glitches, but I’m not about to enumerate them all.

For me, all this isn’t a problem, although it’s truly an annoyance. But for all those students learning to write on computers it is a problem, especially since most of them have absolutely no idea about the basics of grammar, let alone about how to write correct complex sentences – and now we have a computer grammar-checking program that can only make the situation worse!

There are definitely times when “helpful” technology is anything but, and this definitely qualifies as such.


4 thoughts on “Helpful Technology?”

  1. Chris says:

    I am in complete agreement with your frustration with the current incarnation of MS word and the “development” of the integrated grammar package. I spend a great deal of time writing technical documentation and am similarly disillusioned with the the product.

    I recently came across a product named scrivener which provides a much better writing experience, it seems to have been designed by writers for writers and the cost is minimal.

    If you are suspicious of the link in todays world of malware etc just do a web search “Scrivener” .

    Regards from Australia. I have greatly enjoyed your newest book and look forward to the next installment in the series.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I don’t use Word at home (I use plain text editors, or OpenOffice if I absolutely have to use a word processor). So I can’t test this. But
    shows a checking sequence, and at the bottom of one window there’s a “check grammar” option. Does it turn off the grammar checker if you un-check that box? I think that’s for a batch check btw; for live check, I see
    describing how to choose spelling or grammar checks separately.

    I could understand if they made doing both the default now, even with a relatively lame grammar checker, because most people probably don’t write complex sentences anyway. But if they really did tie the two _inseparably_ together, that grossly fails to recognize that not everyone has the same needs.

  3. Jim 2 (to avoid confusion) says:

    Unfortunately, I think most people barely write sentences today. I’m not sure some of them can actually write words…

    I never liked the grammar checker, though it did do a good job of catching the occasional misplaces comma or period creating an artificial sentence fragment. Spellcheck is useful — but every one of them that I’ve used has had glaring failures in its dictionary. Honestly, I haven’t found one of either that does a good job catching verb tense errors…

  4. Joe says:

    @LEM, with regard to the topic of rationality, the following is interesting:

    Essentially it would predict that as our problems become more complex, more and more people will outsource solving the complicated problems to someone else, and democracy will focus on side issues rather than key issues.

    As to your Word issues, they are a common complaint. However I doubt a programmer decided what was grammatical and what wasn’t. The data would either be produced by linguists or by statistical analysis of large amounts of “known good prose”. While linguists aren’t omniscient, statistical analysis will tend to classify rare and wrong similarly.

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