Should you turn off your grammar checker?

Q: Pat has said on WNYC that she disables her grammar checker because it gives so much bad advice. I wonder if you could expand on this. I generally find my grammar checker to be more of a help than a hindrance.

A: In the new third edition of Pat’s grammar guide Woe Is I, she says her spell checker has been a helpful (though erratic) friend, but grammar check “ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

To make her point about the grammar software, she writes of testing it with this sentence: “After peeing on the rug, Paris scolded her Chihuahua.”

No, grammar check didn’t raise an eyebrow!

Puzzled? In the sentence as written, Paris, not the Chihuahua, is the guilty party. This is an example of a dangler, a common problem involving syntax, or word order.

After getting your question, we turned on the grammar-checking function in Microsoft Word and took it for another test drive. The news isn’t good.

Here’s a selection of some screwed-up sentences that got passing grades:

Those gorgeous Niagara Falls is beautiful. (It should be “that,” not “those.”)

That dress makes you look as an elephant. (It’s “like,” not “as.”)

John looked at me and runs away. (No, “ran away.”)

Effective marketing of brands are difficult. (It should be “is difficult.”)

Gates are at war with Jobs. (Make it “is at war.”)

This is the friend whom I said wanted to meet you. (It’s “who,” not “whom.”)

However you operate it, the things works. (No, “the thing works.”)

None of them is here. (It’s “are here.”)

They don’t admit that, they’re wrong. (No comma, please.)

Everybody has their own seat. (No, “their” isn’t ready for prime time yet.)

In a nutshell, it’s not very good at detecting problems with sequential tenses, subject-verb agreement, punctuation, and so on.

Need we say more?

Check out our books about the English language