Grammar moment: the pitfalls of the computer grammar checker
Computer grammar and spelling checkers may have their uses, but they also have a serious dark side, especially for students new to the art of writing. The problem is that novice writers, not trusting their own skills, put way too much faith in the computer. They just don’t realize that, even as beginners, they have far better skills to tell when the grammar is right. They attribute far more intelligence to the computer program than any piece of software is capable of having, especially not the grammar checker that comes with the biggest name brand word processor.
The spelling checker might not be as seriously flawed, but its influence is more insidious. When it encounters a word not in its dictionary, it makes guesses to what was originally intended, listing words in order according to the spelling checker’s estimate of likelihood. But more than half the time, the word at the top of the list is NOT the word the writer intended, and if the writer assumes that the spelling checker’s choice is the right one, the writer ends up with the wrong word. Thus, spelling errors have nearly disappeared from student writing, but misused words are epidemic – I have lost count of the number of times I have seen “defiantly” used for “definitely,” or “untied” used for “united.”
I have seen cases in which students are so untrusting of their own judgment, and so trusting of the computer, that they go through their papers, making changes, often at random, until every last green or orange squiggly underline disappears. The results are atrocious, and far from grammatically correct. I once received a paper on which the student had misspelled her own name – when I asked about it, she said, “The computer said it was wrong, so I fixed it.” This was a name that the student was proud of, that her mother had chosen carefully because it was unique. But the student chose the computer’s “correctness” over her mother’s intentions.
Yes, spelling and grammar checkers can be useful, but primarily in the hands of more advanced writers who can make the judgment of whether the computer has pointed out a legitimate concern or has simply flagged as an error something that is not really an error. I tell my students, time and time again, that the computer is wrong more than half the time, that the computer flags what might be an error, but it’s up to the students to look closely and figure out whether there’s really an error there. But they still go blindly with what the computer says. I would love to disable the grammar checker, and maybe the spelling checker, too, on any computer in the student computer labs. However, that’s a losing battle – too many people are too fond of the checkers.
I’m not alone in my complaints. There is a professor in Seattle who has discovered similar problems. At one point, he was even considering suing Microsoft for its lousy grammar checker. On a more humorous note, there’s a Wiccan who discovered that there is a difference between a spell checker and a spelling checker.