Grammar check is bad for you, and spell check is not much better

I think I ran spell check on my first book four times. The first time before I sent the manuscript to my beta reader friends. The second immediately before I queried agents. The third when I finished agency-requested edits, right before Janet sent the manuscript to St Martin's Press. The fourth was when I finished edits in response to the St Martin's editorial letter.

I never run the grammar checker at all. In fact, the first thing I do when I install Word is turn off grammar checking. Then I turn off the option to check spelling as I type.

To me they're irritants that get in the way of writing. Every time one of those green spell check lines appears, it stops me in mid-flow and makes me go back to fix the misspelling. Yes, I know I don't have to go back, but if you're not going to stop and fix, then why ask to see the green line in the first place? So I turn it off. That way I actually write story, instead of a lot of correctly spelled words.

The grammar checker on the other hand is actively bad. The grammar checker thinks it can write better than me. It's wrong. The grammar checker has no idea of voice or style. And don't get me started on those style evaluation systems. If you took any great story of the past and ran it through grammar check, do you think it would pass?

When the option to check spelling as I type first appeared, I used it all the time. I noticed a strange thing. My spelling became much worse. Okay, my spelling was never great, but that made the slide all the more noticeable. And I became slower at writing, because I was always conscious of not wanting to provoke a nasty green line.

It probably does help that I use autocorrect all the time. But that works because autocorrect doesn't make me stop and redo.

So what I do now is, I write the story, and then I make the story right.


39 comments:

Matthew Delman said...

Hear hear!

During my technical writing master's, I took a course where the book actively encouraged people to use the Spellcheck and Grammarcheck functions that come embedded in Word. I lost all respect for that textbook after reading that.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Whoa! Great minds think alike today, Gary!

http://hatshepsutnovel.blogspot.com/2010/04/i-luv-spelchek.html

I think I'm going to turn off grammar check. I hate those green lines with a passion.

Gary Corby said...

I can imagine there are times when having spellcheck permanently on is a good idea. But writing fiction isn't one of them.

I'd be surprised too if it was all that useful for technical jargon!

CKHB said...

Grammar check is ALWAYS wrong. It's not just wrong from a style/voice perspective, it's just WRONG ALL THE TIME! "And then she went to the store." Did you mean "her"? No, I bloody well did not mean "and then her went to the store." I've disabled grammar on every computer I own.

I can tune out the spell-check lines, but I'm a pretty good natural speller, so I don't usually get them except for dialogue words like "Hmph."

Gary Corby said...

You're right Stephanie, great minds did think alike. I guess we've both had some irritating experiences recently.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie! I think we're starting to see a consensus trend on this subject.

May I borrow your brain for spelling?

L. T. Host said...

SERIOUSLY. Grammar check is a naughty little child, trying to trick writers and college students into doing things against their better judgment.

And yes, it has no clue about the voice I'm writing in. If I want to say something backwards, I will. You hear me, Word?

*Phew*. I needed that. Thanks, Gary.

Gary Corby said...

LOL, L.T.!

I wonder if there's anyone out there who likes grammar check?


Microsoft, btw, will almost never pull a feature even if everyone hates it. (Unless the feature is breaking systems, of course.)

L. T. Host said...

(Can you tell I've been irritated by this for a while?)

Yes, Microsoft has a long and heady history of leaving in features that are useless and/or annoying simply because they came up with them.

I believe they may be the origin of the phrase, "It's not a bug, it's a feature!"

At least in my world, they are.

Yvonne Osborne said...

I guess I didn't realize I could turn grammar check off. It is a joke and writers must ignore it at all costs. As an example, my main character's name is Will. Word has never recognized this as a Proper noun and you can imagine how irritating this is. Spell check less so but still an irritant. Once again, Gary, I find nothing here to disagree with!

David J. West said...

I have noticed the same thing-too many weird old names never appear on my spelling dictionary-I am always adding them, and grammar check is absolutely worthless as well.

Amalia T. said...

I noticed that my spelling had worsened considerably too, from relying on spellcheck systems be they in word or firefox or whatever. I started writing short pieces in notepad instead, just a thousand words or so every couple of days, and all my blog posts, and my spelling improved dramatically in a very short time. But, I also don't really notice the squiggly lines at all in word anymore, spelling or otherwise--even when sometimes I really should.

RWMG said...

Even worse, I've had people whose work I've edited saying, "But the computer said I can't use the passive voice", or "Are you sure this is a word? The spellcheck doesn't recognise it." I just tell them the computer isn't very well educated.

On the other hand, I do know people who refuse to use the spellcheck and are quite incapable of catching their own typos.

Gary Corby said...

L.T., "It's not a bug, it's a feature," is another way of saying, "working as designed," which is another way of saying, "we deliberately created the thing that is annoying you so much."

When this happens, it's sometimes because the product management team screwed up with their ideas on what people wanted, but it might equally be because the person complaining is a small minority, and that others love the same feature. It's very hard to know between the two until you get a lot of feedback. And by then the hated feature has been there so long that it becomes a backwards compatibility problem to remove.

Which isn't an excuse for crappy features, but it is the reason.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Yvonne, if it's any compensation, I recall a talk once where Bill Gates said something similar. He commented he was forever forwarding incorrect grammar checks like that to the grammar team and demanding they fix them. I guess it must be a hard problem, because obviously they never did.

Gary Corby said...

David, yes, it absolutely drives me up the wall, and surely you too. Foreign names and terms, and then Word can't recognize the different verb forms either, so you end up conjugating verbs in the dictionary so Word will stop whining.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, that's really a very good idea!

You could try the same thing with WordPad too, which'll save as a .doc. You know, WordPad has pretty much all the features of a top word processor from the 80s, yet people sniff at it today as inadequate. I wonder if you could write a novel in WordPad?

Gary Corby said...

Robert, I'm one of those people you mention incapable of catching lots of errors!

I solved that problem by marrying someone who never misses a thing. An extreme solution, but very much worth it.

Christine H said...

I write fantasy, which makes spell check go berserk.

I love it! I love clicking "Ignore All."

Take that, Microsoft!

RWMG said...

I'm pretty sure it would be illegal to marry all my co-workers.

_*rachel*_ said...

Forget the grammar check; have you tried running Hemingway through a grade level test?

On a new computer, I kill the grammar check as soon as the green lines first pop up and annoy me. So, about the first sentence I write.

As for spellcheck, I generally don't have it on as I type. I use it, but not too often. I mis-type often enough, but I see it as soon as I'm done with the word and fix it. For example, in the last sentence I had; i, witht eh, and donet. I fixed them before I even got to the next word.

VR Barkowski said...

After using Word eight to twelve hours a day for most of my adult life, I'm accustomed to ignoring anything it tells me.

The CFO for a company I once worked for used grammar check on everything he wrote. Each time the program told him he'd written a passive sentence, he'd rewrite. That man generated some mighty bizarre financial narratives.

Oh, and a really ugly match-up? Word's Grammar check and clipped dialogue.

Loretta Ross said...

Years ago I had one of those old, late-80s, early-90s word processors. It got stolen and I had a pretty good idea who had taken it (this is a small community and I've lived here all my life). I made a point of telling someone I knew would pass it on to them that I was reporting it stolen and that, if it were found, I would be able to identify it by the things, including my name, that I'd added to the user dictionary.

A couple of nights later I came home and it was sitting on my front porch.

So I guess, once at least, spell check has been useful.

Gary Corby said...

Christine, I can see you're a lady not to be trifled with.

Gary Corby said...

That's terribly unfair for you Robert, but luckily you're much more careful at proofreading than me. So they're the ones who probably need to marry you.

Gary Corby said...

Rachel, I once ran my blog--this very blog you are reading--through a grader system, and it decided my writing was fit for kindergarten kids.

I don't know whether to be please that my writing is so accessible, or horrified that the grader thinks exotic ways of killing people is a fit subject for 6 years olds.

Gary Corby said...

VR, you're tempting me to declare a contest to write a viable story that passes both grammar and spell checks...but no, I'm not that cruel, nor that much of a masochist.

Gary Corby said...

Good idea Loretta! Though I would have thought most crime would be next to impossible in a small community like that? I guess it helps that you're a crime writer.

Come to think of it, you're in the perfect situation to help the police with their puzzling unsolved murders, so they can make a TV series about you.

_*rachel*_ said...

What about a contest running famous writing through spelling and grammar check? We can vote on the worst perversions of literacy.

L. T. Host said...

LOL at Loretta-- great story :)

And Gary-- exactly. Another scenario (my personal favorite from my stint as a web project manager) is people demanding high-level features without understanding the implications, i.e., the bigwigs say, it should spell and grammar check, and the programmers are saying, but what do we do if it's wrong?

Sometimes having a "feature" can be more important than making sure it actually works as planned. And that goes for Microsoft and small development businesses. Sigh...

Regardless of how it got there, I just turn them off. And peace descends, and I can write, at last. :)

Gary Corby said...

I'm not sure I've the time to make it an official contest, Rachel, but I'd be fascinated to see any particularly disastrous results.

Yep, L.T., that's exactly what happens. I can see you've lived through this a few times yourself.

_*rachel*_ said...

On the other hand, I just checked and found you can customize the grammar check. I've set mine to go for:
1) commas in lists
2) quotation marks
3) spaces between sentences
4) sentences over 60 words

I shouldn't have too much trouble with these, but they're something it's nice to have caught for me.

_*rachel*_ said...

I renege that first one. It kept catching my stylistic choices.

Gary Corby said...

LOL on the renege.

On the quotation marks, I've given up on smartquotes, because it always gets it wrong after an em-dash.

I guess the 60 words makes sense for most people, but even then, Word would whinge about a lot of the work of Patrick O'Brian.

Loretta Ross said...

I never use smart quotes. They tend to get garbled by email programs.

I briefly belonged to a large online critique group. There was one woman who always critted anything I submitted and who counted the words in each sentence (I guess) and would write "sentence over 22 words. Too long. Shorten." That was one of the reasons I dropped out of the group.

Arbitrary "rules" always annoy the hell out of me. Too many long sentences is a problem. One sentence over 22 words is not a problem. There are places where you need an adverb. There are times when passive voice is the right choice.

Gary Corby said...

I wonder what would happen if she critiqued A Tale Of Two Cities?

Judith Engracia said...

This is good advice. I should probably turn off the grammar check, too, so it won't distract me when I'm writing papers.

Are you working on new stuff right now? Or is it top secret at the moment?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Judith!

I'm 36,000 words into first draft of the third book. Set at the Olympics of 460BC, where dreadful things happen.

Bill Kirton said...

Nothing to add except I share your attitudes to both these functions. The grammar stuff is infuriating and invariably WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.