English Plus+ News, February 1999

Why Can't My Grammar Checker Automatically Correct My Mistakes?

What Can We Expect, and Not Expect, from Grammar Programs?

Occasionally we receive a request for a program that will "read" a computer document and make all the grammar corrections.

The requests usually sound something like this:

Does your software rewrite and organize awkward or ungrammatical sentences and paragraphs? Can it punctuate and present my document to make it clearer without changing the meaning?
On the surface that may sound like a reasonable question. Nowadays some of the spell checkers have instant correction modes--for example, if I type teh, it will automatically change it to the for me.

That may work with some common words we spell, but do not expect a grammar program to make editorial decisions.

Why not?

With my tongue in my cheek, I might answer, First they must develop software that reads your mind!

The concept is fairly simple, but the execution is anything but simple. We will not use the word impossible, but it is not going to be easy.

Grammar is Very Subtle
Grammatical relationships can be very subtle. In speech we often use things besides words to affect the grammar. The sentence "Your name is Mary," can be made into a question just by changing the tone at the end of the sentence: "Your name is Mary?" Other things like sarcasm and verbal irony are very difficult to program.

There are regional variations as well. In most areas, for example, people say, "I am waiting for you." However, in the southern United States, and among many African-Americans (whose roots are in the southern U.S.) people say, "I am waiting on you." Popular novelist John Grisham is from Mississippi, and that is the way he writes. In other regions, to wait on means "to attend to, to serve," hence the words waiterand waitress.

There are also very subtle shades of meaning with compound words.

A parakeet is a blue bird.
A parakeet is not a bluebird.
When we read this or when we hear this, most native English speakers over the age of seven understand the differences. Would a grammar checker? It could, but it would not be easy. You would have to have about a dozen questions to ask for each such compound word, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of such compound words in English.

That is not all.

The Wrong Way to Write a Valentine
Here is a simple sentence punctuated two different ways. Both are correct, it depends on what you mean.
I think you are beautiful.
I think, you are beautiful.
I asked the girls in my grammar class, which would you want written on your Valentine card?

In the first, I is the subject and think is the verb. It is a straightforward declaration of the speaker's belief. Most women would consider that a compliment.

In the second, I think is a qualifying parenthetical expression showing some hesitation or doubt about the main clause, You are beautiful. One female student said to me, "I'd rather he lie than say that."

How is an automatic grammar checker going to be able to tell the difference?

Grammar Shows Intent
That is why grammar checkers most often ask questions. They do not know--no one does--what you intend to say. They will ask, which do you prefer? Without getting too commercial, if you were not sure of the answer, you could quickly check in Grammar Slammer.

Here is another example. Again, both sentences could be punctuated correctly, but they mean two different things.

My aunt who lives in New York is coming to visit.
My aunt, who lives in New York, is coming to visit.
The first one specifies which aunt. The second one tells us something about the aunt, but the information about her being from New York is not critical to the meaning. That one illustrates a nonrestrictive modifier.

The first one can be helpful if you have several aunts and the person you are writing knows her as the one from New York. The second one suggests either that you only have one aunt, or that you have already established who it is you are writing about.

Family Trees and Automatic Checkers
For example, in my case, I only have one aunt. My father was an only child and my mother just had one sister. I would use the second one. My wife's mother, on the other hand, had seven siblings and her father had two. It took me years to get all the aunts and uncles straight; I still have not met a few of them. If she were trying to communicate which of the ten or so aunts she meant, she would use the first sentence. Do we ask grammar checkers to first search our family trees?

In fact, even that automatic spell checking feature is hardly foolproof. Yes, I appreciate the spell checker when it changes teh to the. But I am an English teacher, so sometimes I type out passages in older English which use the word thee. It gets annoying to have the automatic checker change thee to the! In that case, it is not being helpful!

There are many other difficulties as well, but this gives you an idea of some of the challenges of creating a computerized proofreader. Sure, spell checkers and grammar checkers make the job easier, but good publishers and printing companies still hire human proofreaders to complete the job.

Take a look at the latest Grammar Slammer demo at http://englishplus.com/pub/grmslm20.zip. This is not artificial intelligence, but a handy pop-up Help file reference for English Grammar. Until there's a mind-reading proofreader, Grammar Slammer plus your grammar checker is the best thing going. Registered users can get Grammar Slammer Deluxe which includes a spelling reference as well.

Have You Updated Your Fonts?

Now there is the Euro, the new currency for the European Common Market. The symbol for the Euro looks like a "C" with two horizontal lines crossing it: .

If you can read the character after the colon in the last sentence and it looks like that oversticken C, then the font you are using for reading this web page is current. If not, you may want to update it, especially if you do business in Europe of have other reasons for wanting to keep current.

Not all fonts are available with this latest character. It will not be part of the 0 to 255 character ASCII character set. However, Windows and newer Mac OS's have a number of characters beyond the 255 characters in ASCII or ANSI.

Free Windows and Mac Fonts with the Euro Symbol,
A number of the commoner Windows Fonts are available now with the Euro character. Go to http://microsoft.com/truetype/fontpack/win.htm for updated MS Windows® fonts (for any version 3.1, 95, 98, or NT), or http://microsoft.com/truetype/fontpack/mac.htm for Mac Apple OS. This includes the common Windows fonts like Arial, Courier, and Times New Roman. If you have Windows 98®, you can click on the Windows Update icon and you will be taken to a different page which has a downloadable font pack. Unfortunately, that page only recognizes Windows 98®, so other version users will have to "manually" download each updated font set.

By the way, to make, the Euro symbol, hold the Alt Key and then press the zero, one, two, and eight keys of the numeric keypad. Or as some might put it, "Alt + 0128." It does not make any difference whether the Number Lock is on or off.

For a listing of the ASCII characters in Windows, see XASCII online or download our free XASCII Help File.

Notes

We did not publish a January newsletter. That is midterm exam time, so we were busy with other things.

The Grammar Slammer version 2.0 has been officially released. The demo is available as noted above from http://englishplus.com/pub/grmslm20.zip. Those of you with registered versions of Grammar Slammer or Grammar Slammer Deluxe, if you have received your program since June of 1998, your copy is current. If you are registered user and your copy is older than July of 1998, we will be happy to send you an upgrade patch. E-mail is quickest, but we can also postal mail it to you.

May all your anguish be vanquished,
Your friends at English Plus+

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