Professor leads crusade against Word’s grammar

When professor Sandeep Krishnamurthy collected the term papers from one of his classes at the University of Washington, he was shocked by the egregious errors in one of his students’ papers — so bad that he would not grade the paper. In frustration, he told the student to at least use grammar check next time.

The student responded that she had.

This incident motivated Krishnamurthy, a marketing and e-commerce professor who demands that all papers he receives have undergone a spelling and grammar check, to investigate just how reliable the grammar check on Microsoft Word is for student users. After testing the grammar check with sample sentences, Krishnamurthy said he was shocked by what he had found.

“If you have a basic understanding of the language, it might assist you, but if you have no idea how grammar works, it does not correct a lot of basic problems,” he said.

To combat the computer software giant, he has started a crusade, first reported in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction, that includes the launch of a Web site that assails the company’s grammar check software.

Microsoft did not return phone calls requesting comment for this article, but the Redmond, Wash.-based corporation did release a statement in which it claimed that its grammar check serves merely as a writing aid.

“The Word grammar checker is designed to catch the kinds of errors that ordinary users make in normal writing situations,” read the statement.

Krishnamurthy said the press release indicates that Microsoft is choosing to deny there is a real problem until the media scrutiny dies down.

Microsoft’s grammar check tool does not pick up on blatant errors in verb tense, capitalization and punctuation, he claims. On his Web site, he reports that the grammar check tool considers phrases like “Marketing are bad for brand big and small” and “You Know What I am Saying?” to be correct.

Ironically, as his Web site points out, the sentence “Spelling and Grammar Check is complete,” describing two separate processes, is grammatically incorrect. But this is the very message that appears on the screen to announce the end of a Microsoft Word grammar check, he said.

“Because people are often writing things rapidly, they are assuming that the worst errors have been picked up,” Krishnamurhty said. “This is the wrong assumption.”

For Yalies and other college students working on term papers and other longer projects with multiple drafts, the grammar check is particularly ineffective, Krishnamurthy said.

“If you keep editing a document, nothing gets flagged, but if you copy and paste it into a new file, then the grammar check wakes up,” he said.

Yale English professor Shameem Black said that she has not seen many particularly egregious errors in her students’ work that are attributed to the grammar check, but spelling errors often occur when students use the automatic spell-check tool without looking over their work carefully enough.

“Certainly lots of people use the spell check and come up with homonyms that are not grammatically correct,” she said.

But both Black and her colleague, English professor James Kearney, said they do not ask students if they use grammar check, so it would be hard to tell if the problems they saw in their students’ papers came from using such a tool.

Berkeley College Writing Tutor Cathy Shufro said it is common to find obvious grammatical problems like the “past tense of lead,” but that overall she does not see grammar as a huge problem for Yalies.

Still, Krishnamurthy said he believes that Microsoft should rethink offering such a flawed tool to the general public. What particularly upsets him, a self-proclaimed grammar guru, is that Microsoft has progressively dulled the sensitivity of their grammar check. Grammatical errors that the 1997 version of Microsoft Word picked up are undetectable on the 2004 version, Krishnamurthy said.

“They say that this is in response to consumer comments, but I do not know who these consumers are,” he said.

Krishnamurthy said he thinks that since there are already settings in Microsoft Word that can make the grammar check more or less sensitive, it would not be hard to design to provide a more comprehensive grammar check for sub-par speakers of the language.

Krishnamurthy said the problem is particularly relevant to international students for whom English is a second language, students who may need assistance forming the proper grammatical structure of the English language.

“It should be designed for the poor writer, for someone who needs it the most,” said Krishnamurthy, who said he sees many international students struggling in his classroom.

Yesol Huh ’07, a Korean student, said that although she has not experienced any significant problems with Microsoft’s grammar checker, she does often rely on the program.

“I know that the grammar check is there, so I make some really stupid mistakes,” Huh said “I know that if I make a mistake, it will catch it.”

Certain targeted items could be added, because most foreign speakers are going to be making the same types of errors, Krishnamurthy said.

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