What Grammar and Style Checkers Miss

Teaching students to write does not mean correcting their errors, or even preventing them from making errors. While I’m grateful that autocorrect catches most of my typographical errors, I have so far been unimpressed by software tools that aim to check grammar and style.

Most of my students are pretty good readers and writers; if they are familiar with the material, when given a prompt they can churn out a decent paragraph in 20 minutes. But they are used to getting points for writing error-free paragraphs that summarize what they have read. I can talk myself blue in the face about the difference between a paragraph that accurately summarizes someone else’s idea, and a paragraph that uses details from several different people’s ideas to support an original idea. But my students will typically still try to do their work in a desperate, caffeine-fueled sprint.

As a grad student taking difficult classes with other specialists-in-training, success meant keeping up with the pack on a large number of things, but also finding some niche to master, with the goal of generating new knowledge that filled a gap. A couple days ago I got an email from a world expert in medieval drama, who was mostly asking about the status of a computer simulation I published in 1997, but also mentioned she didn’t agree with some of my data. Thrilled to learn that somebody was interested in work I had done 21 years ago, I told her I’d be happy to run the simulation again with her data. Then I went out into the hallway and cheerfully told the first three or four people I bumped into.

What a different experience it is for a college freshman who approaches writing with the goal of accurately summarizing received wisdom, or restating the prompt in as many different ways as possible, or expressing unsupported personal opinions, in grammatically correct sentences.

My teaching strategy is, of course, to break a major research paper assignment up into multiple small steps, get the students reading and critiquing each other’s steps, and get them to talk to me face-to-face about their ideas. I do mark specific errors (I am a stickler about vague references to “the media” or millennial innovations like “based off of”), because some hills are worth dying on; nevertheless, when the ideas are sound, the grammar usually takes care of itself.

A lot of writing in school and in business is stymied because writers fear writing. A lot of bad writing gets turned in because those who write with a fear of writing often rush to get the writing done. If in that rush those writers rely only on their grammar checkers for feedback, a lot of poor writing will go unchecked. What’s unchecked and poorly written generates sometimes harsh criticism that reinforces the original fear.

A lot of work in teaching writing is the work of teaching writers to get past bad feedback experiences, memories of bad grades in school, recollections of angry scrawls and notes from managers. Too often writers create an inner Frankenstein critic made up of all the worst criticisms they’ve received. So in workshops we sometimes celebrate admittedly bad writing because having written bad writing is the start, not the end, of writing. —Nick Carbone