Don't grammar matter?

April 30, 2002

CAN A COMPUTER be intellectually lazy?

We know people can. That's what explains our ever-increasing reliance on machines to do our thinking for us: the calculators we use to figure 15 percent on a restaurant bill; the spell-checkers and grammar-checkers we lean on when writing with word processing software.

Turns out we may be counting on gadgets that are doing a little brain-napping of their own -- at least as far as the grammar-checker is concerned.

The New York Times reported recently that an English professor's look at Microsoft's dominant Word 2000 grammar-checker (famous for the wavy green line it places over improperly worded passages) revealed that the software couldn't catch any of the most common usage errors. Corel's WordPerfect, a distant competitor, caught only half.

Those in the computer world lament this as a byproduct of Microsoft's stranglehold on desktop word processing software. The absence of real market pressure to force the company to produce a more accurate checker has dulled grammatical vigilance at the company, they say. Users are suffering from monopolistic malfeasance.

Maybe.

But our temptation, albeit a bit snobbish, is to say: "Serves the slackers right."

How did we ever get to the point of counting on Bill Gates and his tech buddies to keep our words honest and our prose true?

Time to shut off the computer and pick up a copy of Warriner's English Composition and Grammar and diagram some sentences. (Quick: What's the past participle of "to have"?)

Learn the language, and learn to love it. And save the computer's brain for sorting out life's truly vexing problems -- like taxes.

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