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Infinite Possibilities; Problems with Grammar Checking Tools

April 23, 2021


If you are a professional writer, you most likely had dozens of teachers and mentors over the years that invested time and effort in helping you become a “human” grammar checker. For the rest of us, writing a report or publishing an article can leave one feeling uncomfortable in fear of the grammatical errors that going to be cast in stone. After all, it is so easy to end up the butt of your colleague’s jokes or see your credibility as a writer flushed down the toilet. From a technical perspective, software developers have been designing and releasing writing tools for decades. Unfortunately, lexical relationships and grammatical exceptions run deep in the English language. Whereas spell checkers have gotten good at identifying misspelled words, once words are used in content, grammatic complications seem endless with numerous syntagmatic (meaning of words), paradigmatic (semantics), and formal (homonymy or polysemy) relationships to be considered.

Limitations of English Language

Although grammar checking apps are reasonably user-friendly and fast to use, they are only as good as a writer's ability to use them. In a recent JSTOR article, researchers concluded grammar checkers only correctly identified errors in student papers 50 percent of the time. Moreover, robotic grammar checkers often flagged perfectly good prose as a mistake (false positive). Today’s grammar checkers are more limited than spell checkers, but the limitations have nothing to do with the comparative technology or software used. They are caused by the nature of language itself. In retrospect, spell checking could be manually completed using a dictionary to look up the word; however, correcting grammar could require several reference books to complete your proofreading assignment. Language is a significant property of human beings. From a linguistics perspective, communicating using a human language may always be a challenge that is filled with limitations for robotic consumption.

Challenges for Grammar Checking Apps

It is somewhat common for content to be grammatically correct but still contain many linguistic issues. Since nothing looks more amateur than written text that could have easily been corrected, it may be time to develop better human proofreading skills. Combined with handy online editing tools, proofing is what works best at a macro level. Listed below are language stumbling blocks that you may need to catch:

  • Poor Structure – The wording might be awkwardly constructed or inconsistent making it difficult to read and absorb.
  • Homonyms and Homophones – Homophones are words that sound alike but spelled differently. Homonyms sound alike with different meanings.
  • Polysemy - Polysemy refers to the coexistence of many possible meanings for a word or phrase often with a vague or unclear relationship.
  • Redundancy and Repeats – Over-run sentences often say the same thing more than once and the overuse of the same word or phrase is annoying.
  • Vague Wording – Abstract words often lack much needed information, so it is best to replace vague words with more specific ones.

The bottom line is, as useful and time saving as grammar checking tools might be, apps may never be advanced enough to substitute for human proofreading of written language. So, don’t stop using grammar checking tools, but always allow ample time for proofreading your content. Since so many lexical relationships exist in the English language, just plan on picking up where your spell check or grammar checking app leaves off.

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