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(San)deep's World. Wise observations from Prof. Sandeep Krishnamurthy, Associate Professor of Marketing and E-Commerce, author, educator, Dad, coach, racquetball player, evangelist, speaker and thinker.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

My latest thoughts on Grammar Check

Written communication is on the rise, thanks to the reality of the virtual organization. Today, all of us write extensively to communicate with co-workers and colleagues on topics ranging from the mundane (e.g., setting up meeting times, sharing anecdotes) to the serious (e.g., online discussions on the future of a product, online decision making). The online environment is mostly textual and therefore, people are frequently judged entirely on their writing. Poor writing is equated with low abilities and could lead to a serious loss of reputation or status- especially when there is an absence of face-to-face interaction.

Despite competition from WordPerfect and OpenOffice, Microsoft Word is the dominant word processing software worldwide. It is everywhere. Users now use Word on multiple operating systems (different versions of Windows, Mac). It is the default word processor for e-mail writing for many. On college campuses worldwide , it is the tool de jure for writing reports, term papers, Masters theses and Ph.D dissertations. Its sheer pervasiveness brings with it a minimum level of responsibility. Therefore, Microsoft must take it upon itself to introduce features that enhance the user’s ability to write and strive to set the correct user expectations.

Grammar Check gives writers easy access to grammatical rules. The feature is easy to locate and even easier to run. The message to users is this- “Help is one click away”. As a result, in a world filled with deadlines and other time pressures, many are likely to run a Grammar Check on their documents “just to be sure”.

What do users expect when they run this check? I think they expect “minimum grammatical competence”. I define this as the absence of glaring grammatical errors. My point is that users are mistaken in making this assumption. You can run Grammar Check and still have terrible writing (not just “so-so” writing). Imagine the thousands of reports, e-mails, term papers, blog postings and memoranda that were sent out by users who wrongly assumed that Grammar Check would have caught their worst errors. These individuals would be surprised to learn that in some cases their writing was not just average, it was terrible.

Grammar Check gives users a feeling of comfort. This aura of invincibility that surrounds the users of this feature can be very damaging. Users who rely on it regularly (the 20% in your poll) may not be writing at the level they think they are writing at.

Grammar Check does not check the grammar of poor writers. Faced with the worst sort of writing, it freezes like a deer in the headlights. As a result, those who need the most guidance do not get any. I have emphasized ESL writers in this context. Children who are learning to write are a similar group that may expect an unusally high level of performance from Grammar Check. K-12 educators must be wary about the limitations of this feature on Word.

At this point, I think Grammar Check must either be renamed as “Grammar Analyzer” or something else that connotes a lower level of scrutiny. The Help file must be changed to reflect true performance. A warning message such as “Use at your own peril” or something along those lines must be included. The phrase “comprehensive analysis of text” must be removed.

I refuse to accept the point of view of many techies that we have to wait for perfect AI for us to move forward. We can take innovative and new approaches to this problem. On the Slashdot thread, there are already hints and ideas for new ways of building a Grammar Check.

The problem is not that we are relying on technology to help us with grammar. I am not asking Microsoft to withdraw their Grammar Check feature. I believe that a software program can help us improve our grammar. My message to all players in the marketplace is to create a better product- a plateau that is well within our reach.

Finally, I have been shocked by the comments of some techies that I am expecting too much from them. I know that is not the case. I hope future products have grammar analyzers that detect poor writing and help all of us write better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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