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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.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The New Statesman has posted a wonderful story about my GrammarCheck adventure.

How to improve Jane Austen: Observations on the grammar check. By William Skidelsky

William Skidelsky

What many people have long suspected has been confirmed: Microsoft's grammar check is indeed virtually useless. Sandeep Krishnamurthy, a professor at the University of Washington, tested hundreds of examples of bad writing. Among the sentences deemed grammatical were: "Marketing are bad for brand big and small", "Gates do good marketing job in Microsoft" and "I am agree with what the article say".

Krishnamurthy began his investigations when a student turned in a "poorly written report" that had been judged error-free. For some students, Microsoft's tool appears to have acquired an absolute authority: if a piece of writing passes the check, then it must be OK.

Microsoft argues that the grammar checker is intended as a writing aid rather than a catch-all, and that it is "designed to catch the kinds of errors that ordinary users make in normal writing situations". Yet if it cannot determine something as basic as whether a verb agrees, it is hard to see how it can perform even this function.

I tested the check using Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The first sentence - "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" - might have read slightly differently if Microsoft Word had existed in Austen's day. Apparently, the comma after "acknowledged" is ungrammatical. Equally unacceptable is the first sentence of Emma: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly 21 years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." Here, the check recommends replacing the infinitive "vex" with "vexes". Henry James's prose is famously complex, and sure enough, the third sentence of The Europeans - which describes "a lady who stood looking out of one of the windows of the best hotel in the ancient city of Boston" - is wrong on account of the word "lady" being "gender-specific". "Woman" or "person" is advised.

Even apparently straightforward sentences fall foul. "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure"- the opening of Camus's L'Etranger - should have "or" replaced by "alternatively" or "on the other hand". And as for the most famous opening sentence of all, Anna Karenina's "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way", Microsoft thinks this is "too wordy", and suggests deleting "all".

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One of my favorites