Probing the Limits of Grammar-Checking Software

By Geraldine Woods

Learning grammar in the 21st century is irrelevant because grammar-checking apps, autocorrect functions, and word-processing programs make human knowledge obsolete. Right? Wrong!

English has a half million words, and you can arrange those words trillions of ways. No app or device can catch all of your mistakes, and many programs identify errors that aren’t actually wrong. Worse, some apps automatically guess what you mean and make changes automatically. A friend tried to sign up for an online writing course, which her phone changed to a worrying vise. (On second thought, writing does sometimes cause so much worry that you feel you’re trapped in a vise! Maybe the phone was accurate after all.)

Other programs show you a few choices in a tiny space, where it’s all too easy to hit the wrong word. Imagine what happens when you type or tap “garage” and it shows up as “grave” in answer to the question “Where’s Pam?” (Speech-to-text programs that try to capture your words on a screen frequently make mistakes like this one.)

True, some apps find some problems and sometimes suggest good alternatives. But some is not the same as all. Often, computers can’t tell the difference between homonyms — words that sound alike but have different meanings and spelling. For example, if you type

Eye through the bawl at hymn, but it went threw the window pain instead.

your word-processing program is perfectly satisfied. However, you are actually trying to say

I threw the ball at him, but it went through the window pane instead.

Machines aren’t as smart as people. Take a look at the words your device inserts, changes, or identifies as wrong. Then use your knowledge of spelling and grammar to say exactly what you mean, correctly.