But the Grammar Check Thingy Said
by Cherie Tucker
If you give your protagonist an unusual name, say Chingachgook, Spell check will flag it. It does so, not because that name is spelled wrong, but because it’s not in Spell check’s memory bank. Most of the time, you can easily see if you have actually misspelled something or if the machine just doesn’t have that word in its dictionary (or hasn’t read The Last of the Mohicans). With the grammar checker, however, it’s not as easy to tell.
The grammar tool on your computer is amazingly programmed to detect punctuation, usage, and grammar errors. It can even tell if you have too many spaces between words. Sadly, however, the little tool doesn’t know how to read. It can tell if things might not be in agreement, for example, so it will put its little green squiggle under what it wants you to check. If you wrote “Bill don’t know me,” the checker would suggest that you might mean “doesn’t.” However, if you wrote
Bill who used to work with me at the other store don’t know nothing,
the grammar check will suggest you change “nothing” to “anything” to avoid the double negative and change don’t to doesn’t. However, it won’t tell you that there should be a comma after Bill and another after store to indicate that this little bit of information is an interruption of the main part of the sentence. There is no squiggly line or even a warning when you go to the grammar check. Its flagging of punctuation errors can be dicey.
Be aware that there are other instances in which the grammar checker is not always consistent in its warnings. In the first line of this article, it squiggled under “Spell check” with a capital S,suggesting the use of a lower case s, but it ignored the same thing in the next line and in this sentence. Ironically, Spell check requires a capital; grammar check doesn’t.
The point here is that you should not panic if your computer says you’ve committed a green-squiggle error. It is programmed to tell you that in this particular instance (think who/whom; lie/lay), a lot of people make mistakes. Did you? (It just flagged my previous comma to hilariously suggest a semicolon!) If you aren’t absolutely sure what to do, check your Gregg Reference Manual or call me. Don’t just accept those changes. They may have nothing to do with what you are writing—especially if you’re writing something in dialect like Cold Sassy Tree or Country Western lyrics like “If the Phone Don’t Ring, You’ll Know It’s Me.”
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference. She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well. GrammarWorks@msn.com