Little Green Lines

by Harry on September 15, 2006

Most of my students write in Word, as (like Daniel) I do. I’m not crazy about it, and used WordPerfect for years, before collaboration with other people who write in Word made me fall in line. But Word does have one feature that I love: the grammar and style warning constituted by the little green underlining of any string of words that Word doesn’t like. I find that eliminating the green lines almost always (19 times out of 20) improves the way that the text reads. It is especially valuable to me because my grammar has never been brilliant (though it is better than my spolling, and much better than my typinf). It is not perfect; some strings that it underlines are the best way of putting things, and many strings it doesn’t underline are not.

My students frequently hand in papers which must have been almost completely underlined in green when on the page. I frequently give them advice on writing, but I have never yet told a class of undergrads to eliminate all the green lines (not, obviously, by turning the function off, but by revising their sentences till the green lines go away). I plan to do so when I next assign a paper. Those of you with higher standards than I have: should I do this? If not, why not?

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vitia » Blog Archive » Responding to Error
09.17.06 at 2:13 pm



Ray 09.15.06 at 8:23 am

The green underlining in Word annoys the hell out of me.
I think you should identify the four or five rules that your students are having the most trouble with, and explain them to your class. (Maybe highlight one rule each time you assign a paper?)


John Emerson 09.15.06 at 8:30 am

I have two specific problems with Word’s green lines, besides my hatred of their very existence.

Following Strunk and White, Word automatically flags all passive constructions, whether they are well-used or not. And as I remember, in sentences whose subject is a phrase of the type “The group of boys….”, it will suggest that the verb agree with the nearest noun (“boys”) rather than the actual subject (“group”.) So I turned off the grammar cop.

I do use the Spelchek, but it’s annoying too, because all proper names and all foreign words are flagged.


Andrew John 09.15.06 at 8:35 am

I predict you will get many outraged objections, but I agree with you: the Word style suggestions are often helpful, particularly when you do not have time to do multiple edits. I think of the little green lines as kind of like having a reasonably competent (but not brilliant) copy-editor on hand. The style-checker goes by rigid and occasionally unreliable rules, misses many things, and makes mistakes, but that doesn’t stop it from being useful. And even when I ignore its suggestions, which is often, I still find it helpful to check why it is objecting to what I have written.

Whether it is a good pedagogical device for learning to write better is a different question. I’m not sure I have a strong opinion on that.


Chris Bertram 09.15.06 at 8:44 am

Gosh. I’m highly averse to taking Microsoft’s advice about such matters, so I performed a little experiment in the hope of showing how silly they are , but failed miserably. (I pasted some chunks of E.M. Forster into Word: hardly a green line to be seen.)


Matt 09.15.06 at 8:44 am

Like John above I find some of the suggestions by the grammer checker annoying, but it’s not hard to ignore those. (Of course you don’t have to have them turn on until you run spell and grammer check, so you don’t have to see them on the page the whole time.) But, I like the idea of telling the students to use it, even more than John’s suggestion of listing a few rules since I strongly suspect that the biggest problem is that the students don’t know (or don’t realize) that they are violating the rule. So, this might help them. Contrary to expectations spell check has actually made me a better speller. (Not a good one, but a better one surely) since I’ve had my regular mistakes pointed out to me over and over I’ve learned to not make some of them. Also, John, at least for your own computer you can add the names of people and places that you regularly use and the spell checker won’t pick them out anymore.


maureen 09.15.06 at 8:47 am

Chris at 4 – try putting a chunk of one of the metaphysical poets into it – that really is fun!


tom s. 09.15.06 at 8:49 am

I’ve also been annoyed at Word’s presumption, only to find that many of its suggestions make sense. However, if you do carry out your threat to make students eliminate the green lines you may first want to recommend a set of rules.

Choose Tools > Options and go to the Spelling and Grammar tab. Click Settings in the grammar part of the window, and you can choose which grammar and style rules you want to apply.

Of course, there are so many you will, if you are like me, throw up your hands and use the default settings – but they are there.


KCinDC 09.15.06 at 8:51 am

Andrew, if you often have to ignore its suggestions, then telling students that they need to heed all of its suggestions means Harry will be causing them to introduce errors into their writing. Maybe the grammar checker is right most of the time, but it’s still very often wrong, and asking students to treat it as infallible seems like a very bad idea.

Isn’t it bad enough that Microsoft’s “smart” quotes have caused even professionally printed materials to use opening single quotes in place of apostrophes at the beginning of words (like ’twas or class of ’06)? Do we really need to allow it to completely eliminate the passive voice and spread even more confusion about subject-verb agreement?


Anon 09.15.06 at 8:51 am

I have a love hate relationship with the green lines. They do point me to trouble spots, but I’ve never been able to figure out what style book they use.


Steve 09.15.06 at 8:52 am

Like John above I find some of the suggestions by the grammer checker annoying, but it’s not hard to ignore those…. Contrary to expectations spell check has actually made me a better speller.

I’m sure this will come off as terribly dickish (and I’m hardly one to cast stones about spelling errors), but your comment made me smile broadly.


engels 09.15.06 at 8:55 am

The little green lines are idiotic, but anyone who is still using Micro$oft products clearly deserves them. ¡Hasta la victoria siempre!


Doug 09.15.06 at 9:07 am

The grammar checker is a moderately competent line editor, but not anyone you would want to hire. As noted above, it is bad about subject-verb agreement. It is also bad about comma usage, and nearly hopeless with semi-colons and colons.

Eliminating all the green lines, if done by following the automated suggestions, will introduce new errors, which seems to defeat the purpose of the exercise.


kid bitzer 09.15.06 at 9:14 am

Microsoft’s grammar-checker is an insult to anyone who can write competent prose–following its instructions would result in unrelieved mediocrity.

That’s why I fully endorse Harry’s proposal to assign its use to college students.

Until you have read batch after batch of freshman prose, you just can’t believe how bad it is. MSWord may be tone deaf, but it would be a huge improvement over what the kids produce on their own.

Yeah, I ignore a fair number of its recommendations. But I read ’em, first, and sometimes I agree with them. If the students are even just faced with the *question* whether they should use this word or that, or whether this verb agrees with this noun, it will be a huge increase in the amount of attention and thought they give to their writing.

You know what else is cool? If you have a multilingual document, you can highlight an entire paragraph and tell Word what the language is (Italian, French and German are the only ones I’ve used). And then–son of a gun. It checks the grammar and spelling in those languages.

Look, I don’t want to sound like I’m praising Microsoft for anything–hating MS is one of my obligations as a liberal. But at the very least, I felt that I understood better why MSWord takes up such an appalling amount of my hard-disk. It’s got grammar-checkers and spell-checkers in there for other languages, just waiting for you to use them. Cool.


harry b 09.15.06 at 9:15 am

I missed out a relevant piece of information that I didn’t know about. I never follow the automated suggestions for revision. This is because I didn’t know there were any (I didn’t know what you were talking about, so explored a bit, and have found some very bad automated suggestions). My writing is more complex than theirs should be — what if I tell them to eliminate the green lines without paying any regard to the automated suggestions (so that they are actually learning by trial and error how to write properly)? My guess is that this should improve things without introducing new bad habits, even if it doesn’t eliminate all errors.


Witt 09.15.06 at 9:17 am

IME, the usefulness of Word’s features depends on your starting point. Students who are already comfortable with the written word may find most of Word’s “corrections” to be annoying at best and actively unhelpful at worst. Students whose prose is awkward and labored may find Word’s generalized rules to be a useful structure.

As my old dance teacher used to say, “You have learn the rules before you can break them.” I turn off every feature in Word because I’d rather make my own mistakes than live with theirs. But I have colleagues who find those little lines indispensable.

I don’t remember what subject you teach, but in my experience, good writing is rewriting. My best professors would have us turn in the same assignment two or even three times. Regardless of whether you recommend Word, I’d consider reducing the number of assignments you give and increasing the number of revisions.


Doctor Slack 09.15.06 at 9:22 am

In the hands of someone who lacks basic grammatical knowledge, I’ve seen older versions of Word’s grammar cop produce text ranging from the awkward to the comically unreadable. The more recent version seems to have improved somewhat, but kcindc is right — it will still tempt the unwary or those lacking basic skills into introducing errors into their text.


KCinDC 09.15.06 at 9:25 am

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” may be good advice, Witt, but surely the rules referred to are actual rules of grammar, not the poor reflection of those rules built into Microsoft Word.

(And I note that WordPress followed MS Word’s lead in screwing up the apostrophes in my comment at 8.)


Matt 09.15.06 at 9:37 am

Smile away, Steve- I don’t even mind. As I said, I’m a poor speller, and there’s no spell check mechanism here, and ‘grammar’ isn’t one of the words I’ve had beat in to my head by the spell checker. Maybe now I’ll remember it!


nihil obstet 09.15.06 at 9:38 am

what if I tell them to eliminate the green lines without paying any regard to the automated suggestions

And they will, of course, do what you tell them? Rather than passively allowing Word to eliminate the green lines, they’ll experiment themselves? How energetic and cooperative they are!


Dan Mitchell 09.15.06 at 9:50 am

I wonder if you my limit the number of green lines (say “x” number per page) as opposed to trying to completely eliminate them? Following Word’s advice (what a strange thing to write) every time does not always result in the best writing.


Henry (not the famous one) 09.15.06 at 9:50 am

This nagging quality of Word is of a piece with its other infuriating features: its decision that you really wanted to put that text you transported into nine point type (in Cyrillic, if possible), its stupidly rote approach to using headings (when it decides to make every return a new numbered paragraph unless you turn it off), etc., etc. And it’s more often wrong than right; for every time it spots the failure of the verb to agree with the subject, it flags a false problem three or five times. A teacher who was this consistently wrong would not inspire you to be a better writer, would he/she/it?

I think that using the green line is also a terrible idea for teaching writing to people who need help. Putting aside the fact that you are turning over your teaching responsibilities to a badly designed program, will encouraging students to let this thing tell them what to think encourage them to think on their own? In this age of shortcuts and plagiarism, I somehow doubt it.


Anderson 09.15.06 at 9:59 am

Back when I taught comp, I had a single-page list of the 20 most common grammar/syntax errors, as found by some pair of researchers. Very handy. (Make that “Lunsford & Connors,” not “some pair of researchers.”) Supposedly, these are 90% of the errors made by freshman writers.


fred lapides 09.15.06 at 10:09 am

One point that these comments fail to make: While it may be helpful to point out errors while typing and using a checker, students ought to learn sufficient rules so that the green lines decrease over a period of time. Simply having someone (the checker) point out errors is the equivalent of having a roomate or friend redo the paper for the writer.
Learning is more than having your mistakes fixed by someone else.


Russell Arben Fox 09.15.06 at 10:10 am

I still write in WordPerfect, always. If someone says something has to be submitted in Word, then I will write entirely in WordPerfect, spell-check it and edit it in WordPerfect, even format it in WordPerfect and keep my permanent copy in WordPerfect; only then will I translate it into Word. I’ll never give in.


Bruce Baugh 09.15.06 at 10:25 am

I find the grammar checker very handy when I’m writing close to deadline and late at night, under stress, or in some other less-than-ideal set of conditions. That’s when I make the boneheaded slips, and the reminders save me some embarrassment. And yes, for student prose I imagine it’d be very, very much an improvement for almost all of them.


Brian 09.15.06 at 10:25 am

The list that Anderson mentions is useful, but it has a pretty bad howler.

Pronoun agreement error.
Many students have a problem with pronoun agreement. They will write a sentence like “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” The problem is, “everyone” is a singular pronoun. You will have to use “his” or “her.”

Since “they” is a gender-neutral pronoun which can be either singular or plural, and neither “his” nor “her” are gender neutral, the original here is much better than either of the suggested alternatives.


Anderson 09.15.06 at 10:25 am

It’s a bit amazing to me that Microsoft hasn’t created an option in Word to “WordPerfect” the program … make it quit doing all that ANNOYING AUTOMATIC CRAP that no one wants.

Of course, if there *were* such an option buried in the sub-sub-submenus, who would know?


Anderson 09.15.06 at 10:29 am

Brian, that’s not quite a howler (not that I have any investment in Dartmouth’s examples). “Their” disagrees in number with “Everyone,” which is simply wrong. The gender-bias in “his” or “her” is a problem, but not a grammatical error.

They should’ve written, You will have to use “his or her.” *My* caution to students was to ask why they were using “Everyone” in the first place; freshmen fall readily into broad generalities.


Anderson 09.15.06 at 10:29 am

freshmen fall readily into broad generalities.

Now *that* was funny.


Eszter 09.15.06 at 10:36 am

This is a good question, Harry. I think Witt above is right that the usefulness of this will partly depend on the starting point of the various students. And I agree with the various people mentioning the annoyances of the feature, the cases when it clearly gets things wrong (like the case mismatch, I hate that one so much). All that said, I do find it helpful at times. (Of course, not being a Native speaker, but a pretty good speaker, there are times when it really shakes my confidence and I get confused. Needless to say, I don’t appreciate those occasions.)

If you do introduce this in class, I would definitely spend some time discussing it. For one thing, as noted above by someone, provide very clear instructions (preferably written ones with screen shots) of how people set it up as you cannot assume that they have this set up already. Second, I would provide some examples of what the green lines look like (again, some screen shots could be helpful). Then discuss the most common problems students tend to make, and present how these will show up with lines, and why students will find those helpful. Giving them concrete examples of what they’ll get out of the use of this tool should help.

To incentivise use, you could ask students to submit papers electronically, and let them know that you will open their documents in Word and if you see x% (or x number) of green lines that are not mistakes on the part of Word then you will not grade their paper and will require a revision overall resulting in delayed feedback. Just a thought. (It may be more trouble than it’s worth on your part, but you don’t actually have to follow up on this per se with every paper, you can just say that it’s something you may well do with every paper.)

BTW, did anyone else (or did anyone not:) think this was going to be a post about LGF? The fact that they’re green has never been what stuck with me about this Word feature. I tend to refer to them as “the squiggly lines” so clearly that feature of it is more “relevant “to me.


Peter Clay 09.15.06 at 10:37 am

Clearly what is also needed is a thought checker, to deal with the next level up.


Chris Bertram 09.15.06 at 10:46 am

Anderson: the “pronoun agreement error” involving the use of a singular “their” isn’t an error at all. Singular “their” is OK – or at least it was OK for Jane Austen and Shakespeare.



Rob St. Amant 09.15.06 at 10:46 am

Most of my students write in Word, as (like Daniel) I do.

Gah. I dislike writing in Word, mainly because it’s so inefficient compared with the text editors I’m used to, which have far fewer bells and whistles. Some of my students write in Word, but many do not. I’d face an uprising, I think, if I were to force them to use an application that they dislike, that I dislike, and that offers only questionable value.


Michael Kremer 09.15.06 at 11:06 am


What do you think of this piece of writing?

“Everyone wanted to keep dancing. He or she said ‘Don’t turn off the music.'”

Is this grammatical but weird, or is it better (and grammatical) to write “They said…”

(not original, I think I got it from the Oxford Companion to English Usage, or something like that.)


Jared 09.15.06 at 11:18 am

I think Harry’s ammendment at 14 is the way to go. It’s important to remember that students are often lazy and automatically accept the program’s suggestions. The most efficient way of getting better writing might be to tell them not to do that. My favorite example of misplaced trust in a spellchecker is “fop ax.” It took me a while to realize it was an attempt at “faux pas.”


harry b 09.15.06 at 11:31 am

jared — my favourite is Birdhouse, which is the standard suggestion for my name (and which, believe it or not, I have been addressed as in emails, non-ironically).


dearieme 09.15.06 at 11:33 am

I happened to quote a passage of 1950s English in a document: far, far better English than modern chemists use. It got green-lined. So in the Word versus A Distinguished Chemist Educated at Winchester and Oxford contest, I award the prize to the old boy.


Adam Kotsko 09.15.06 at 11:44 am

One nice thing about Word is that it’s pretty thoroughly customizable. All the annoying features can be turned off — though I wish that they would try to have the default settings be something like “best practices,” rather than showing off new settings by turning them on by default.

With German, Italian, etc., I think those spell-checkers vary by country — the American edition only has English, Spanish, and French. I would gladly trade the Spanish for German, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.


SamChevre 09.15.06 at 11:50 am

Chiming in, in general agreement with many others; Word’s grammar checker is seriously imperfect, although it is, in many cases, better than freshmen’s compositions.

In my work, the biggest problem is that the grammar checker hates the passive voice; for technical writing, the passive is usually the preferred voice, since the focus is intentionally on the action rather than the actors. Also, it doesn’t like semi-colons, which I use heavily; it gets subject-verb and noun-adjective agreement wrong frequently; and it catches errors of tense only by accident.


Claire 09.15.06 at 12:21 pm

The way I deal with this in my introductory linguistics classes is to give a short lecture on prescriptive versus descriptive grammatical rules, and a slightly longer leture on genre and sociolinguistics. We talk about how some varieties of English are stigmatised in different contexts (from certain words to whole grammatical constructions), and how good educated standard English is its own genre, and controlling it is a potentially valuable and powerful skill. Then we talk about some elements of that style. I also tend to make my students do a lot of reading (especially in the more advanced classes), so they’re exposed to a lot of academic prose.
I have no idea if it works any better than any other method, but I do see improvements. I wouldn’t use Word’s grammar checker because of its biazrre mishmash of prescriptive rules that no one follows these days, and because the most frequent issues my students have don’t seem to be with grammar, but with register. That is, the sentences they use are grammatically correct, but they’re either very colloquial, or the ideas in them are vague, or the pronoun usage is vague, or something like that. Grammar checkers aren’t going to catch those things.


nick s 09.15.06 at 12:22 pm

The green underlining is the first thing I turn off in Word, whenever I’m forced to use that pile of crap. It’s exactly the kind of grammar-checking one would expect from a computer software firm.

I’m also wary of the benefits of composing directly into any word processor; having only a small proportion of the text on-screen at any one time makes it deceptively easy to sacrifice the overall structure of a piece while ensuring that one paragraph runs smoothly into the next. I’ve yet to see a program replicate the process of spreading all those pages out on the floor so that you can see where a manuscript sags.


tom s. 09.15.06 at 12:33 pm

“It’s exactly the kind of grammar-checking one would expect from a computer software firm.”

– well, you may be right, but grammar checking is after all a hugely complicated task. And the one thing about that kind of technology is that it will only get better.

In five years, will we still be lamenting the stupid green line or will we be happily letting Word (re)construct our compositions in response to a few keywords and sketches that we provide it (and complaining about the clumsiness of its automatic translation from Sanskrit)?


engels 09.15.06 at 12:37 pm

And the one thing about that kind of technology is that it will only get better.

Well, it sure as hell can’t get any worse.


tom s. 09.15.06 at 12:46 pm

Oh yes it can :-). Did you use the first few iterations of Word’s grammar checker? You think it’s bad now – it was far worse a few releases ago.


kim 09.15.06 at 12:48 pm

42:”In five years, will we still be lamenting the stupid green line or will we be happily letting Word (re)construct our compositions.”

In five years, I predict we will still be waiting for Adobe Acrobat 6.0 to load.


engels 09.15.06 at 1:16 pm

Did you use the first few iterations of Word’s grammar checker?

You mean the one which warned you every time you typed the word “there” that this word is sometimes confused with “their” and “they’re”? Yeah, I remember that.


KCinDC 09.15.06 at 1:41 pm

Yes, Eszter, the title triggered thoughts of LGF for me as well. I was going to ask whether Word had a new ideology checker that could highlight insidious pro-Muslim bias in one’s writing.


Russell Arben Fox 09.15.06 at 1:57 pm

45: “In five years, I predict we will still be waiting for Adobe Acrobat 6.0 to load.”

Dammit Kim, you made me laugh so hard I choked and spit out my sandwich. That was my lunch.


JR 09.15.06 at 2:33 pm

A spelling or grammar error just kills the effect of advocacy writing. The reader stops thinking about your argument and starts thinking about the error. And the error creates doubt about your reliability. It’s like getting a dirty spoon at a restaurant. If the spoon is dirty, how clean is the kitchen?

I always do a spell and grammar check because there are always careless errors, even in short documents, and even after proof-reading. Most of the time the grammar check is wrong, but if I accept one suggestion out of ten, then it’s worth it.


nick s 09.15.06 at 3:36 pm

In five years, will we still be lamenting the stupid green line or will we be happily letting Word (re)construct our compositions in response to a few keywords and sketches that we provide it (and complaining about the clumsiness of its automatic translation from Sanskrit)?

Well, translation’s a slightly different issue, and while Google demonstrated an early example of its natural-language methods over a year ago, we haven’t had a sniff of it since.

One could draw parallels to the arguments over allowing calculators into maths classes, or even the line that keyboard skills give us doctors’ handwriting. In those cases, though, it’s a question of handing off spade-work in order to devote more time to more advanced techniques. I can see spell-checking as an equivalent tool, especially given the capriciousness of English, but grammar is much more entwined with the higher-end processes of writing. Change the voice or reorganise clauses, and you’ll alter the tone and perhaps the effect.

Then again, Word is primarily used for short pro forma documents, and there’s no harm in giving them a once-over with the green line.


Ben 09.15.06 at 3:56 pm

Will no one here speak up in favor of emacs? It not only has no grammar checker, and will never do anything annoying you didn’t look up the keystroke combination for before hand, but has a built in psychiatrist, and an implementation of “the game of life” instead. Now, that’s what I call a word processor.


Andrew John 09.15.06 at 6:47 pm

[kcindc, way back] I completely agree with your first paragraph, which is why I did not endorse using the little green lines as a tool for teaching good style.

Thinking about it more in the light of these comments, I think that the stylechecker is much more useful to people who already know how to write than to those who don’t. I take my prose seriously, and I have little time for prescriptive rules of grammar, yet I do find the stylechecker useful. I find it even more helpful when writing in French: it recently correctly pointed me to about half a dozen errors in a one-page document, all of which I was then able to fix.


nick s 09.15.06 at 7:33 pm

ben@51: we’ve hashed out that particular flammable discussion a couple of times, and the related Word-vs-LaTeX one…


anonymous 09.15.06 at 8:58 pm

You should next write a diatribe against the automatic production of outlines and lists in MSWord. It makes drawing up your own outlines and syllabi very difficult.


vivian 09.15.06 at 9:14 pm

I turn off the green lines as distracting, but turn them on once before printing. They are really useful as spell-checking for homonyms (this will catch there/they’re/their mistakes) and autocorrect-induced mistakes. You know, the really embarrassing ones.

It’s an interesting idea because while the prescriptivist rules are all the Language Log guys complain they are, applying them to freshman papers will usually make the papers more readable. Everything in moderation. So, yeah, try it and remember to tell us how it goes.


Henry (not the famous one) 09.15.06 at 9:59 pm

A timely quotation pulled from some site somewhere, with attribution to a book I’ve never seen:

“I also believed, with Aldous Huxley, that it takes just as much work to write a bad book as a good one, and that whoever made the effort deserved, at least, a kind word — even if the kindest words one could muster were ‘please learn to spell, punctuate, construct a sentence, think coherently, find some other way of making a living.'”
Rayanna Simons, “Slush,” in Editors on Editing 117, 117


maidhc 09.16.06 at 1:56 am

It appears to me that many major newspapers use the Word grammar checker to replace a human editor. One seldom finds simple spelling errors in the papers, but usages like “with baited breath”, “pouring over old documents” and my favourite “Viola! There it was!” are common.


cf 09.16.06 at 8:02 am

English language newspapers in Saudi Arabia used to automatically replace “offensive” words in wire service text with acceptable equivalents (even in crossword puzzles) – “beer” became “beverage”, “ham” became “meat”. Once, in an article about a rock band, I read how they got their start playing at high schools and “restaurant mitzvahs”.


engels 09.16.06 at 11:55 am

Singular “their” is OK – or at least it was OK for Jane Austen and Shakespeare.

It was also good enough for God.

“Singular they”: God said it, I believe it, that settles it. [Language Log]


bemused 09.16.06 at 8:16 pm

It amuses me to see the defenses of writing in the passive voice in formal writing in previous comments –suggesting that it is necessary or desirable. While it is often difficult to find a way to rephrase formal writing to use the active voice while avoiding the first person, it invariably pays off in concision and in answering the reader’s questions that would arise in reading the passive voice form. Yes, I use Word’s squiggley green lines as a reminder. I don’t slavishly remove every one, and I don’t take the advice of the grammar checker, or even read it. But I believe it tightens up my writing to remove the green.


John Emerson 09.16.06 at 11:10 pm

Oh, pooh!, “bemused”.

We all know that passives can be misused. We just don’t think that every single one should be flagged, as MS Word does.

“Defenses of writing in the passive” — why, isn’t that moral equivalence and relativism? Lord save us.


Peter Hollo 09.17.06 at 1:13 am

Too right! The passive voice is useful, and can even be essential, in technical writing, scientific writing, philosophy, and plenty of other areas. It can, indeed, often be more precise. Word’s insistence on flagging every passive construction in a document is one reason to turn the grammar checker off, along with the other problems mentioned above.

FWIW, speaking as someone with a fair bit of editing experience, Word’s grammar checker, and even its spell checker often, are the first things any copyeditor I know turns off when installing the program — along with most of its irritating auto-correct and auto-formatting features. The grammar checker is far too inaccurate and misleading to let loose on first-year uni students! Please don’t ;)


Peter Hollo 09.17.06 at 1:17 am

And what’s more, the grammar checker often wrongly characterises sentences as being in the passive voice when they’re not, for the same reason that it gets confused about case matching and so forth. And many of its punctuation rules are positively archaic, as also mentioned above.

I think the main problem is that while it may bring up the standard of the really bad papers, it will also tend to mediocritise the decently-written stuff; and what’s more, because it’s so misleading and so often incorrect, it won’t teach the bad students anything much at all, while confusing those who do have some idea.


Anderson 09.18.06 at 11:46 am

After a weekend away from the computer …

Singular “their” is OK – or at least it was OK for Jane Austen and Shakespeare.

This assumes that Austen and Shakespeare are infallible, and that the rules governing their usage govern today. Spell “choose” as “chuse” and you will get marked off.

As for “Everybody wanted to keep on dancing. They said …”, the problem doesn’t arise, because it’s not just one person speaking.

As for the KJV, one has to allow for scribal errors, no? And in any event, Nietzsche already hit this one: “It was subtle of God to learn Greek when he decided to become an author — and not to learn it better.”

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