A Word to the unwise -- program's grammar check isn't so smart
Monday, March 28, 2005
By TODD BISHOP
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Microsoft the company should big improve Word grammar check.
No, your eyes aren't deceiving you. That sentence is a confusing
jumble. However, it is perfectly fine in the assessment of Microsoft
Word's built-in grammar checker, which detects no problem with the
Sandeep Krishnamurthy thinks Microsoft can do a lot better.
The University of Washington associate professor has embarked on a
one-man mission to persuade the Redmond company to improve the
grammar-checking function in its popular word-processing program.
Krishnamurthy is also trying to raise public awareness of the issue.
"If you're a grad student turning in your term paper, and you think
grammar check has completely checked your paper, I have news for you
-- it really hasn't," he said.
Microsoft says it has been making continuous improvements in the
grammar-checking tool, and the company notes that the issue is more
complex than it might seem. Experts in natural-language processing say
the broader issue reflects a deep technological challenge beyond the
current capabilities of computer science.
"It is tremendously difficult," said Karen Jensen, a retired Microsoft
researcher who led the company's Natural Language Processing research
group as it developed the underlying technology for the grammar
checker, which debuted in 1997. "It gives you all kinds of respect for
a human being's native ability to learn and understand in natural
But Krishnamurthy, a professor of marketing and e-commerce at the UW's
Bothell campus, isn't convinced that the software giant is doing
everything it can -- and he supports his point with eye-catching
He has crafted and posted for public download several documents
containing awful grammar. Depending on the version and settings, the
Word grammar checker sometimes detects a few of the problems. But it
overlooks the majority of them -- skipping misplaced apostrophes,
singular-plural inconsistencies, missing articles, sentence fragments,
improper capitalization and other problems.
An excerpt from one of his documents: "Marketing are bad for brand big
and small. You Know What I am Saying? It is no wondering that
advertisings are bad for company in America, Chicago and Germany. ...
McDonald's and Coca Cola are good brand. ... Gates do good marketing
job in Microsoft."
With examples like that passing through unflagged, Krishnamurthy
questions whether Microsoft should even offer the grammar-checking
feature in its existing state.
"If you're including a feature in a widely used program like Microsoft
Word, it's got to pick up more things than it currently does," he
said. "I agree, the English language is very complicated, but I think
we should expect more from grammar check."
By comparison, the grammar checker in Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect Office
12 catches many of the errors in Krishnamurthy's test documents that
aren't detected by the Microsoft Word 2003 grammar checker, even set
at the highest sensitivity to errors.
In fact, there is room for Microsoft to make incremental improvements
in Word's grammar checker, said Christopher Manning, assistant
professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University.
For example, he said, the Word grammar checker could benefit from
greater use of advanced probabilistic and statistical methods to
analyze sentences and flag problems. Microsoft has applied some of
that more advanced research to competitive and high-profile areas such
as Web search and spam detection.
Microsoft says the grammar-checker does use probabilistic techniques
in addition to more basic, rules-based methods. But with further use
of advanced approaches, it appears possible for Word's grammar checker
to improve, Manning said. However, he said, "It still wouldn't be as
good as a good human editor."
Microsoft calls that the fundamental issue. Responding to an inquiry
about Krishnamurthy's examples, the Microsoft Office group said in a
statement that the grammar checker "was created to be a guide and a
tool, not a perfect proofreader." Microsoft also makes that point in
Word's product documentation.
The statement added, "It is possible to list a number of sentences
that you would expect the Word grammar checker to catch that it
doesn't. But that doesn't represent real-world usage. The Word grammar
checker is designed to catch the kinds of errors that ordinary users
make in normal writing situations."
It would be possible to "dial up the sensitivity" of the Word grammar
checker to catch more errors, the company said. However, that could
also cause it to flag sentences considered correct in colloquial
That would risk making the tool more intrusive than people want, the
company said. In fact, Microsoft dialed down the sensitivity of the
grammar checker in certain respects starting in 2002, responding to
customer feedback. For example, some people objected when the tool
flagged sentences of more than 40 words as "perhaps excessively
Krishnamurthy said he considers the company's view too simplistic. He
suggested that Microsoft further increase the available settings,
beyond the current options, to let people essentially "pick the level
of intrusion." He also said the company should offer an add-on for
people who need extra help, such as students for whom English is a
As it now stands, the tool helps good writers but "really doesn't help
bad writers at all," he said.
Krishnamurthy, 37, grew up in Hyderabad, India. A textbook author and
a frequent contributor to scholarly journals, he is passionate about
writing and the English language.
But how did a marketing and e-commerce professor become a
grammar-checking crusader? While always stressing the importance of
writing well in the first place, Krishnamurthy would also routinely
tell his students to run the Word spelling and grammar checks as a
precaution before turning in their papers.
Then, last year, one student turned in a badly written report.
"The least you could have done is run spell-check and grammar-check,"
"But I did!" the student said.
That prompted the professor to investigate, and he began discovering
blind spots in the Word grammar-checking tool. Krishnamurthy
ultimately decided to assemble specific examples of bad grammar that
made it through undetected. He began circulating them last week via
e-mail to friends, colleagues and Seattle-area media. He also created
a Web page for the purpose:
The professor is careful to point out that he's not out to bash
Microsoft. But he says the company is spending too much energy on
extraneous capabilities, while neglecting core features such as the
grammar checker. Among other things, Microsoft is trying to expand the
market for Microsoft Office by adding a series of related server-based
Office and related software make up Microsoft's second-most profitable
division, bringing in more than $7.1 billion in operating profit in
the last fiscal year. The core Office programs dominate the market.
Despite the lack of intense competition, there is a business incentive
for Microsoft to invest in core features, said analyst Rob Helm,
research director at Kirkland-based research firm Directions on
Microsoft. That's because one of the company's biggest challenges is
persuading customers to upgrade from older versions of its own
By making improvements to features such as the grammar and spelling
checkers, Microsoft "can give people an additional incentive" to shift
to the newer version, Helm said.
Jensen, the retired Microsoft researcher who worked on the original
grammar-checking technology, said major advances would involve making
computers understand sentences in ways that humans would.
As an example, she cited one of the sentences used in Krishnamurthy's
sample documents: "Gates do good marketing job in Microsoft." Only by
knowing that "Gates" probably refers to Bill Gates -- and not to the
plural of the movable portion of a fence -- would the program know to
suggest using "does" instead.
"It's this level of understanding that you just can't expect a
computer to have at this point," Jensen said. "Someday, of course, it
would be great, but we're not there yet."
In the meantime, Krishnamurthy is spreading the message. He doesn't
suggest that anyone stop using the grammar-checking tool, but he wants
people to fully understand its limitations and not consider it a
substitute for good writing and editing.
In one part of his Web site, he has posted a cautionary list of "top
writing mistakes" made by his students. No. 11: "Assuming that
Microsoft Word's spelling and grammar check will solve all writing
On the Net: faculty.washington.edu/sandeep/check
P-I reporter Todd Bishop can be reached at 206-448-8221or
P-I senior online producer Brian Chin contributed to this report.
(c) 1998-2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Monday, March 28, 2005
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