Go ahead, let the computer rewrite your text

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Crooked Timber has a long discussion about whether Word's grammar checker is a good or bad thing. A lot of the discussion seems to start from the premise that students ought to learn how to write Standard Written English (SWE), and then ask whether Word's grammar checker helps or hurts that. Most of the rest of the discussion is complaining about what a bad job Word does of reproducing/enforcing SWE. I'm not sure I think either issue is all that relevant.

First, to the question of whether it's important for students to learn to write SWE. I definitely think it's important for students to learn how to structure their thoughts in order to present them, but it seems to me that it's an open question whether learning the kind of grammar that MS Word is designed to correct is more like that or is more like penmanship—a skill which has been rendered more or less obsolete by modern typesetting 1. Sure, there are occasions where people prefer the flexibility and beauty of hand-drawn letterforms but they're getting rarer and rarer, especially as people get used to the look of machine typeset documents.

This brings me to my second point. The rules of SWE, like the rules of any language, are to some extent arbitrary2 So, while it's certainly true that Word isn't that great at reproducing what a copy-editor using the CMS or MLA Handbook would produce, a lot of the informal writing that people come in contact with is going to look like the Word style because it was produced using Word. At some point it wouldn't be surprising to see SWE evolve towards the Word style at which point complaints about MS's inability to enforce the old arbitrary rules will be irrelevant--as will complaints about people's inability to remember the new arbitrary rules since the computer will do the remembering for you.

1. Pre-modern typesetting, since single-font dot-matrix printers were already killing handwriting. Laser printers and programs like Frame just completed the job and killed manual typesetting and layout.
2. As John McWhorter points out in his otherwise fairly annoying Doing Our Own Thing, written English isn't really that much like spoken English, and in other languages such as Arabic the difference is much greater.

7 Comments

I certainly agree with you that the first order of business is to ensure that people learn to order their thoughts as a foundation for useful communication.



But, I don't entirely buy the analogy of penmanship. Hand drawn letterforms have their own beauty (or not ;-) ) but don't contribute a lot to the basic success of the communication: getting the message from the writer's mind and into the reader's with minimum loss.



What I think may be getting lost is the notion of language and grammar (and punctuation) as tools for effecting that communication successfully.



If Word gets in the way of someone learning what the rules and choices are for vocabulary, forms of expression, grammar, and punctuation, then Word becomes their tool, not those basic components. I.e., people don't have the ability to break out beyond Word-speak.



I'll argue that is certainly a problem for the (say) 10% of the population who might have cause to produce great written expression in their lifetimes.



So, rather than saying "it's a non-problem", I'd
rather acknowledge it as a loss, but perhaps a reasonable cost-benefit tradeoff for 90% of the population.

English is arbitrary. Mathematics is arbitrary. Pythagorean mathematics is also arbitrary---but it is inconsistent. First-order logic is arbitrary, but cannot express some ideas.

"Arbitrary" doesn't mean "random": you're using it properly in its technical sense, then blurring into a colloquial meaning. The rules of Standard Written English are arbitrary: we could use written-French as written-English and the world would still work. But if we tried to use l33tsp33k, the world would not work as well as it does today. That is, it's possible to objectively judge consequences of these arbitrary choices. It's then possible to apply value systems and infer preferences.

For those who value clear communication to a broad audience present and future readers, including historians of the distant future, Standard Written English has much to recommend it. You and I are both writing in SWE, and we understand each other. Our respective great-grandchildren will also understand this.

The grandchild of an SMS-texter or a Cockney-rhymer will likely not understand SMS abbreviations or Cockney slang. If you speak to be heard or write to be read, it's wise to be conservative in your choice of language.

Brian,

What you say is certainly true, but I don't see how it applies here. The grammar rules that Word is using are quite close to those of SWE, certainly enough to be comprehensible to people 50 years hence--as evidenced by the fact that documents produced using Word's grammar check are quite understandable.

While I would agree with both Knitbot and Brian, I go further in my objection to reliance on the Microsoft grammar checker. The last (and only) time that I used it personally, it not only wanted to alter my writing style (I seem to recall it objecting to the fact that I'm an Oxford Comma man, among other things), but it actually wanted to alter several sentences to make them less clear (alas, I remember only my disgust and frustration, but not the details).

Perhaps it has improved since then (this was several years ago), but even on the assumption that it has improved, the fact that it cannot read minds means that it will have a dire effect in the hands of someone who cannot write clearly to begin with: it will convert ambiguous sentences into unambiguous ones without any knowledge of which way the ambiguity should be resolved. This is a little terrifying; with an ambiguous sentence, one is warned that the author may not be entirely competent and that verification is needed, but with a sentence grammar-checked into something unambiguously wrong, disastrous decisions may result.

Funny, based on my experience in writing technical standards, I would make exactly the opposite argument. When text is ambiguous, each person reads into it what they expect and so you get different interpretations. When it's unambiguous, people who had a different expectation tend to notice.

The discussions here and at Crooked Timber seem to be missing a key point. The whole purpose of SWE is to be arbitrary. It's a cultural convention. Like many conventions, employing it provides a set of signals. In my experience, it signals at least two things.

First, it signals that the writer has a college-level education. So, professors shoudn't be surprised that their freshmen aren't very good at producing it. It would hardly be an effective signal if they were. Note that this type of signal explains why certain professions, notably professors and lawyers don't use SWE in their professional documents. They want to signal that they have the specialized education beyond college expected for practioners of their professions.

I would therefore argue that colleges should teach SWE if they want their students to be able to signal they have the educations they worked and paid for.

The second signal SWE sends is the intention of the writer. Using SWE indicates that the writer considers the circumstances somewhat formal. It also indicates that the writer considers the communication important because he took the effort to use SWE instead of conversational English (thus explaining why SWE differs from conversational English in the first place).

I think being able to send this second type of signal is an important part of succeeding in our culture. I'm always mildly prejudiced against messages in a business setting that aren't in SWE because I subtly feel the writer doesn't take the communication seriously. To the extent colleges want their students to succeed, they should teach SWE on these grounds as well.

This analysis brings us to the question of whether Word helps or hurts. I would argue that it probably helps to some extent in helping students verify some basic level of SWE compliance. However, because the point of SWE is to send signals, my guess is that Word will never fully reproduce SWE or its successor convention. To maintain it's signalling properties, it will have to incorporate differences so that you can tell the difference between who has actually been to college and who just has a copy of Word.

> I would therefore argue that colleges should teach SWE if they want their students to be able to signal they have the educations they worked and paid for.

From http://www.college.ucla.edu/senior05/quotes.html#support:

I have had many learning experiences at UCLA. I can't really pin point one in particular but I do know that I learned a great deal outside the class room during office hours with my professors. They were all so helpful when it came to sorting through my essays and giving me helpful and understandable feedback. Being an English major, essays are all anyone really does so, working on style and content is so important. I learned most when I was one on one with my professors.

They may try to teach SWE, but they don't always succeed. In fact, according to a moderately recent study of functional literacy, many college graduates cannot even read SWE.

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