Programs offer writers help with grammar, style, references

Personal computers

March 11, 1991|By Michael J. Himowitz | Michael J. Himowitz,Evening Sun Staff

WHETHER YOU'RE WRITING a letter to Aunt Rhoda, a repor for the boss or a doctoral thesis, you know what it's like to struggle with misspelled words, dangling participles, misplaced antecedents or a search for exactly the right word.

But if you write with a personal computer, assistance can be onl a keystroke away.

Every word processing program worth its salt has a built-ispelling checker, and the better ones have a thesaurus. Wordsmiths who need industrial-strength help can turn to style and grammar checkers, complete on-line dictionaries and a variety of reference books.

Unfortunately, putting together the right package of writer's aid can be an expensive, hit-or-miss proposition. But where there's a vacuum, or even a low-pressure area, the American software industry will rush to fill it.

Two new releases, each priced at $149.95, are aimed at writer looking for an arsenal of weapons in the war on prose.

The Complete Writer's Toolkit, from Systems Compatibility Corp Chicago, and The Writer's Pack, from Reference Software International of San Francisco, bundle a grammar checker and dictionary with a variety of other tools.

Each package has its strengths and weaknesses. If you nee software like this, I'd suggest getting the package with the tools that best suit your writing tasks.

The dictionaries and reference books in these packages ar available as memory-resident programs. They'll pop up over your word processor when you need help and disappear when you're finished with them.

Unfortunately, the grammar and style checkers are not memor resident. They'll examine file created by your word processor, RTC but you have to exit from your word processor to use them.

Both publishers have licensed Definitions Plus, a disk-base version of Houghton Mifflin's massive American Heritage Dictionary. This is my personal favorite, but I realize that dictionaries, like word processors, are largely matters of taste.

Otherwise, the packages are quite different. The Complet Writer's Toolkit is by far the more integrated of the two and much easier to use.

The Toolkit uses The Houghton Mifflin CorrecText grammar style, punctuation and spelling correction software. In addition to the dictionary, the package includes Roget's II Electronic Thesaurus, The Houghton Mifflin Abbreviation Program, the Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations and Written Word II -- Principles of Grammar and Style.

Installing them all requires about five megabytes of free spac on your hard disk. If you don't have that much space or don't

need all the tools, you can install only those you want.

With the exception of CorrecText, all the tools are available i memory-resident form, from a single pop-up menu. They use a common set of commands, which makes them easy to learn. It's also easy to cut and paste material from the tools into your document.

Unfortunately, using the grammar checker is a pain. It requires so much memory that it won't run if the other tools are memory resident. To use it, you must leave your word processor, unload the other Toolkit modules from memory, run the grammar checker, reload the other tools and then start your word processor again.

Once loaded, CorrecText does a competent job, as grammar checkers go. It will recognize most common word processor file formats and allow you to adapt the rules it uses to your particular type of writing.

Some writers swear by grammar and style checkers. I have yet to find one that was worth the time and disk space it occupied.

While they're probably a godsend for people with terrible writing skills and atrocious grammar, good writers won't benefit much from them. In fact, they erroneously flag so many errors that you'll probably save time by proofreading manually. But that's just my opinion, folks. The only way to find out if a grammar checker works for you is to try it.

Unlike the Toolkit, The Writer's Pack makes no pretense of integration. When you open the box, you'll find a bunch of separate packages. Each is from a different publisher, with a separate installation guide and command structure. There isn't even a single sheet telling you exactly what you've bought.

The strongest element of The Writer's Pack is Grammatik IV, the most popular grammar and style checker on the market. It's smooth and easy to use.

Besides the dictionary, the Writer's Pack includes The Associated Press Stylebook, the Keynotes Writer's Handbook (a basic grammar and punctuation guide) and The American Management Association's Handbook of Business Letters.

The latter is nothing more than a disk with 257 standard text files containing samples of all kinds of correspondence. You can import a letter into your word processor and change it to suit your needs. Unfortunately, the file names on the disk are meaningless, so you have to look up each one in the instruction manual to see what's there.

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