Monday, February 15, 2016

Grammarly, Ginger, Word Grammar-check, and wife

Evans, Dean (n.d.). Proofreading test: my wife vs. Grammarly vs. Ginger vs. After The Deadline vs. Microsoft Word 2010. GoodContentCo. Available 2-16 from:

There are things I like about this and things I don't. One is his simple approach: line them up, apply a certain block of text to each, and see what happens. This is what I do, knowing full well that ESL students' problems are to some degree different from the average native speaker writer, and that the free boxes that each offer as teasers often provide the best grammatical advice available on the market, only for 600-word texts, i.e. it's limited to a little bit at a time.

So he applies his text, with three spelling errors, three grammatical errors, and two factual errors. I don't see how you can expect a computer to pick up a factual error; for example, was it called Apple Co. or Apple Corps? Who would know or even look it up? But both Grammarly and Ginger failed to pick up an its/it's error, and I think this is crucial - now I know from the comments that this article was written before 2013, but I also know that even today the its/it's problem is considered one of the biggest out there. You have to get that one, and it's not that hard.

Well, it's hard enough that I myself couldn't program it into a computer, but I could program something in that told the writer: if you are using it's, are you sure you mean it is or it has?

One reason I mention this is that my wife is an academic, a sociology professor, with very high standards for her (fairly high-level, graduate, mostly native-speaker) writers. And she has, in a fit of frustration, just made an assignment that essentially told her writers, no more of this its/it's crap. No more cupertinos. This is formal academic English. Quit with the lousy writing.

Now these are students who are basically on the market for these programs. The internationals get a kind of break in this picture but, basically, they have some of the same problems, often a few more, but at the same time (compared to the native speakers) they have been learning for many years, and if you give them an opportunity to learn they will. The problem is that these programs don't teach. In some cases they un-teach. Usually they just imperiously pronounce. But if they can't even pick up its/it's, we're in big trouble.

The other common ones are there/their/they're and too/to/two which I figured native speakers never got wrong, boy was I wrong about that. The increased frequency of these kinds of errors is alarming, in my book. What, does Autocorrect just remove that extra "o" (making too into to) every time, just for fun?

Back to this guy's methodical comparison. I'm especially impressed by the comments, and may print them out just to see what people have said. They've had at least three years to pipe up; his article has finally reached the point of prominence where if you mention similar grammar programs in one breath, Google will at least pick up on it and put it up there. But three or four years is a long time; a lot has happened since then.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Autocorrect - Does it work? Do we need it?

Need it? How could we live without it?
Grammar Base - a new free online grammar check service.

This was new to me, so I opened it up. It provides free grammar advice online, and seems to pop up early when you are looking for grammar advice. So you type stuff in there, and it tells you: Passive. Misspelling. etc. etc. This implies, to me, that Passive is in the same class as misspelling. How is a student to know? The big sign says: Passive!

Oh well. 

defiantly true

This was one of my favorite cupertinos, because, for us readers, imagining that something could be defiantly true was kind of an interesting stretch. No, the writer usually meant definitely, and by virtue of typing an a in there somewhere, was diverted into a different word by a computer spell-check which takes vowels to be very important. I think the computer spell-check figures that native speakers usually know the vowels and are more likely stuck on the consonants, i.e. whether to have two of them. Internationals are very likely, or at least more likely, stuck on the vowels. Look at the trouble they have finding and spelling words like obviously.

One thing I'd like to say about this one, is that it's pretty limited in its time frame. Just as cupertino itself was only a cupertino during the early days of spell-check, defiantly as a cupertino for definitely occupies a limited time frame. By that I mean that the makers of spell-check noticed that it was a problem, took steps to ensure that those who intended definitely got it, and made spell-check just a little more sensitive so they could be sure people got what they wanted. In other words, it was a success story for spell-check, more or less. It's not over yet; one still sees defiantly. Not everyone got the 2014 update, or whichever one it was that improved it. Not everyone is thoroughly updated, thoroughly all the time. And that's one of the variables one has to deal with. 

Office Word 2013, update 2014

I try to keep track of this stuff. You'd think I'd have something useful to say, but no, not yet. Here is the site for the July 8, 2014 update. Is this where they got onto defiantly? More soon.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Changeling problems

I'm beginning to name my posts after the things I see. This was one of the best. I'm considering writing a book, and making this the title. The problem is that as I start writing, I get diverted into various aspects of the problem. In my last post, see below, there's a good example. I started writing about how a grammar-check's misleading advice causes an egregious error (see title), but by the time I'm done I've moved on to another problem - that from the reader's point of view the error is not always in the same place where the problem occurred.

So all my writing is like that - dazzlingly distracting and unfocused. I've written volumes about what these little machines do to language as we know it, and every time I get started on one thing they do, I notice another thing happening simultaneously, as in the situation above. This is happening all the time. So my new solution is to name the chapters after the errors themselves, thus limiting myself to talking about the problems as they occur.

"Changeling problems" is what is known as a cupertino, which can be described as good word, wrong place. A student wanted to use "challenging." but through misspelling and inappropriate use of spell-check, was diverted into a word that she really didn't mean or want. Ironically sometimes we like these words; they put a new meaning twist on a situation, as this one does. Sometimes we pick them up and use them for other purposes, as I will do with this one.

He, who hesitates is lost

The title of this post is an example of one of the problems that annoys me the most. I feel like I've done good hard teaching to convince my students that when they put a comma into an adjective clause (such as "who hesitates" they must put a comma on both sides of the clause, and, they should do this only when the clause is truly unnecessary information (not needed for the listener/reader to know who). In this case it is necessary information - only those who hesitate are lost - but what has happened? Grammar check has underlined He and who, and politely suggested to the writer that when you use who (or where or which) you really need a comma. This is poor advice. When you need a comma, you need to use a more formal who, where or which, but that's not the same. As you can see from the example above, sometimes you use who and you really shouldn't have a comma.

OK, so the student takes some bad advice, and puts a single comma before who as in the case above. What have we lost? Can I claim that the student has been untaught? Mistaught? Temporarily misled? Made to look like someone who doesn't have a clue about the clause in its entirety?

In fact, I think the situation is quite murky. I have no idea what these students know, or believe (I've seen this several times, with American students as well), and I suspect that all of the above are somewhat true. Students act on murky advice but can't be untaught something they learned with true confidence, i.e. if they really knew what they really wanted they wouldn't go following that grammar-check's flawed advice. Here are some other examples:

The city, where you go to school is important.
Pick the answer, which suits you best and put it in the blank.
The person, who you should talk to is over in admissions.

I find myself more irritated by the omission of the second comma, because I find that our expansive eagerness to find that your sentence is acceptable, and draw meaning from it, allows me to accept the first comma. When I get to the first one, I find it's possible, even though from a more global perspective we can see that it was placed there wrongly, based on wrong advice, and probably doesn't belong there given the writer's meaning. But I read right through that first one, and place blame on the writer for omitting the second one, and my blame is misplaced. The grammar teacher in me is circling a spot in the sentence that is not where the incident occurred. And this brings yet another complication.

phone devices

Rooney, B. (2010, December 29). Apps we use: Word Lens [iOS]. Wall Street Journal. Available 2-16 from

You might ask why I'm referencing something six years old. It's actually a question. Sometime last year a student showed me this, and showed me how one could put one's phone up against any sign, and, given that one had the appropriate phone and languages loaded, one could get the sign translated immediately. I talked about this a little, here, because I was interested in what it offered and what it would do to the language learning world.

According to this article Google acquired Quest Visual in May 2014 and has now incorporated this feature into its Google Translate app.

So this reference really is a documented history of the development of a phone app that ultimately will be very important, I believe. What they describe, basically, is that you can tell your phone to translate anything, and it will. With some exceptions, of course.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Hewett, Beth L. (2015, November/December). A Review of WriteLab. WLN, A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship 40:34.

WriteLab is interesting software in that it tries to tackle stylistic problems with students' writing rather than technical problems. So, whereas a lot of international students would like to come into a writing lab and say, "just correct the grammar!", this software will be just like the tutor, and say, essentially, "Let's discuss clarity," or cohesion, logic, concision, or emphasis. The software has its own ways of deciding when you need one more than the other, or how it should go about giving you advice. It appears to me that this software presents a number of questions to the writer (such as "what effect do you think this (repetition) has on the reader?") - questions which, if the writer could answer them correctly, would clearly prevented their being in this situation in the first place. I am reminded of front-wheel trucks in mud, for some reason. I think my own students would last about ten minutes on WriteLab.

Ms. Hewitt likes the program, feels that it is in line with Writing Lab principles, and that it doesn't really threaten to take away the job of the Writing Tutor, who can basically ask the same questions, but then provide answers of some kind or another, after the writer gives the blank look caused by being aware that you have lost track of, or have no clue about, the effect your writing has on a reader. In my experience, good writers are hungry for advice about such things. And, it's not always clear; I am a native speaker, and am not sure myself what effect repetition, for example, has on other native speakers. I doubt the writing tutors here, in the variety we employ, would all give the same answer, or even similar ones.

This review reminds me of a couple of issues. First, I'll be the first to admit that such concerns as clarity, cohesion, logic, concision, or emphasis are, globally, more important than simple grammar concerns. I have no problem with a writing lab focusing on them and saying to the student, basically, this is what's unclear, and this is how you could make it better. These things are better done personally, face-to-face, and Ms. Hewett is right in saying "Fear not" - the tutor is not going to be replaced by this computer at this moment.

But the grammatical issues are in an entirely different class; it's almost like they occupy a world of their own, and our students are well aware of this. A student who has all of the issues above, and yet has no grammatical "mistakes" is in an entirely different class that a student who has even one of the issues above, and has at least one grammatical issue. Students tend to focus on the grammatical; they want it fixed, they want it right, and they're aware that the other stuff is somewhat personal and they'll have to be in the right mood to even listen to what you have to say about it.

The impulse to use technology to address these issues is worldwide; it's kind of like the urge to get married, or the urge to pass the TOEFL. We get an image of what's "right," and we seek it. We especially resent the feeling that technology is misinterpreting what we're doing, or leading us down the wrong path toward what's "right" (Ms. Hewett calls these "unhelpful digressive paths") - nobody has time to sort out helpful from unhelpful. She says something interesting - "students' primary revision operations are surface meaning-preserving deletions to write more concisely and substitutions of active for passive-voice constructions" (p. 12). I've gone on and on, for example, about how machines tend to discourage passive and offer active constructions as almost always preferable. Students are well trained to "seek" active alternatives, so as to go with the flow - but the advice given by the computer (in response to a sentence, "Lincoln was assassinated...." WriteLab said, "You might experiment with using a verb more descriptive than was to explain the action in this sentence. The verb was lacks detail or specificity: it could describe almost any action."

If I were to give such advice to my international students, I would be run out of the business, I should hope.