Some Help a Writer Doesn't Need

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

February 23, 1993|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

Charleston, South Carolina. -- It is a truism, or so I had believed until last week, that writers need all the help we can get. Now that I have tried a new piece of software called PC-Proof, I'm not so sure. Given this kind of help, I'm inclined to reconsider.

''This is the Grammar Checker you've been waiting for,'' said the flier. ''PC-Proof concentrates on finding serious grammatical errors. When PC-Proof detects a suspect sentence, it is presented to the user for proofreading. A short description of the suspect problem and how to fix it is provided. After proofreading the sentence and examining the description of the problem, the user can make any needed corrections.''

Well, said I, this doesn't sound like proofreading. It sounds more like copyediting, but what the heck. Franklin T. Hu, author of the program, doesn't claim that his PC-Proof will catch everything, but by isolating ''unusual word order or usage,'' the program will catch most of the errors we make.

To test this remarkable instructor, I retrieved a little story my granddaughter had written six years ago at the tender age of 11. Alina was then, and is now, a precocious darling. Her greatest joy is to shock Grandfather, or at least to give it a good try. She tried with ''The Real Story of Creation.''

In this story, God is an inventive immortal named Fred. The role of Adam is played by Ned, the role of Eve by Nan. This was Alina's lead: ''It was dark, and Fred was bored.'' Said the computer: ''Check if you want to use the passive voice in this sentence.''

Alina wrote: ''Fred decided to then make light.'' The computer, which abhors split infinitives, suggested that she move ''then'' to the end of the sentence.

Alina: ''He went galaxy-hopping for thousands of eons, but gaseous giants and black holes ceased to amaze him.'' Chided the computer: ''Check if you need to insert the word 'to' before the imperative verb.'' (What imperative verb?)

Ned asks Fred how Fred can go galaxy-hopping, and Fred says: ''That, I am afraid, will always remain a mystery to all except to me.'' The computer was not pleased: ''Check if you want to split the infinitive phrase. The phrase 'to . . . except' is a split infinitive.'' (Come now!)

Fred invents fire, and Ned asks, ''Will fire let my meat taste good?'' Said PC-Proof: ''The sentence does not appear to be a question.''

Ned gets angry with Fred. He says, ''Just leave.'' The computer shook its head: ''If this sentence contains a verb phrase, it may be difficult to understand.''

Nan (Eve) comes on the scene. Ned (Adam) rushes to embrace her, but she pushes him off: ''Ned, how long has it been since you've taken a bath?'' PC-Proof commented that '' 'long' followed by 'has' may be an unusual usage in this sentence.''

''I'm thirsty,'' says Nan. The computer found this puzzling: '' 'I'm' followed by 'thirsty' may be an unusual usage.''

Alina wrote that, ''Every night Nan would fall fast asleep.'' PC-Proof had some helpful advice: ''If you can rearrange the adjectives without changing the meaning, then you should place a comma between the adjectives.''

Things go from bad to worse between Ned and Nan. She nags him. He can do nothing to please her. Fred is nowhere to be seen. So, ''One starry night he went to a high rock and tried to summon Fred.'' PC-Proof threw up its curiously programmed hands: ''The noun 'night' might not agree with the verb 'rock.' ''

The machine, thoroughly befuddled, examined a three-word sentence, ''Ned was perplexed.'' The sentence was ''too complex to be processed.'' Fred is thinking of inventing rock 'n' roll. He says, ''It sounds good.'' Said the machine, '' 'Sounds' followed by 'good' may be an unusual usage in this sentence.''

Enough already! PC-Proof did catch a couple of missing question marks. Alina twice had failed to capitalize the first word of a sentence. The program nailed a comma splice. But the trouble with Mr. Hu's Incredible Correcting Machine, I suspect, is that English is beyond the reach of any grammar corrector ever likely to be invented. Words are not always what they seem. Nouns may be verbs and verbs may be nouns. Many split infinitives should be left alone.

Back to the drawing board, Mr. Hu! We writers still need all the help we can get, but some help we can do without.

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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