Grammar and Technology

file0002054526820One of the things I love about the English language is its fluidity—how it evolves over time. But as an editor and writer, that characteristic is also one of the most frustrating things about my mother tongue. For instance, how do we keep up with the rapidly changing terms we use to describe what has sprung forth from the computer revolution? Do we consult style manuals, major newspapers? Take a consensus from our peers? See what’s being used on the Internet? And should you even capitalize “Internet” anymore? Is it a registered trademark? Is Al Gore collecting royalties, or are they being swapped for carbon credits? Continue reading

Why You Should NEVER Trust Your Spell-Checker

It’s all Maria Mariana’s fault. She was one in a group of six linguists from Georgetown University who, back in the 70s, first developed an automated way to check spelling and grammar on word processing programs for IBM. Perhaps, though, she meant well. Thought it would be a good thing to create this seductive monster that can batch-attack the often time-consuming and ponderous human task of checking one’s work for errors.

Backfire, Maria. Semi-total epic FAIL! Spell-check has made us lazy. It has lulled us into a false sense of security with its offers to change your grammar or correct that questionable word. We all have stories of spell-checking failure, some with embarrassing and humorous results. Here are a few more reasons you should never trust that pathetic plug-in with your important work.

1. Spell-checkers are notoriously obtuse. Consider the following passage:

My physical therapist worked out a weight-bearing routine for me that stimulates my osteoblasts, which are the cells that build new bone.

The spelling and grammar checker in my version of Microsoft Word wants to replace “stimulate” for “stimulates.” It believes that the subject that is being stimulated is plural…actually, I have no plucking idea what it believes. It’s just wrong.

2. Spell-checkers can’t parse your intentions. Like this one:

“Pete’s working again.”

Spell-check suggestions for this alleged error in “subject-verb agreement” include “Pete’s is working” or “Pete’s was working.” The writer’s intention was to state that Pete is once again gainfully employed. But good old SC doesn’t know this, and assumes that something of Pete’s is now or formerly was functional.

3. Spell-checkers can’t find missing words. “Ted raced the sink” has a rather different meaning than “Ted raced to the sink.” In a long document, particularly one you’ve been poring over draft after draft, your brain will supply the missing word. So, you may miss it in the proofreading and lead your readers to believe Ted has been imbibing and sincerely believes he and the sink are in competition.

4. Spell-checkers can auto-correct you into situations in which you do not want to be auto-corrected. A former colleague, who normally relied upon his assistant to correct and send out his correspondence, decided to give her a break and take care of some of his own. In an e-mail that went out to the entire sales staff, he intended to ask for their opinions on a new sales program. He ended with, “I look forward to seeing your evaluation.” Only, because of his less-than-stellar keyboarding skills, his spell-check program decided he meant to type “ejaculation.” Yeah. It went out that way.

5. Spell-checkers won’t tell you if your formatting is inconsistent. This is one reason why you should never abandon something as format-dependent as your resume solely to the eye-chips of your computer program. It won’t tell you that you’ve ended some bullet-text items with periods and left them off others. It won’t tell you a heading is in the wrong font or tabbed in too far. These sorts of things are CRUCIAL to swing by your own eyeballs, especially if the job you desire has anything to do with attention to detail.

6. Spell-checkers don’t measure up to humans…at least not yet. Flawed as we are, we’re still better than machines at certain tasks, like knowing what we meant to say. Don’t have time to proofread or can’t tell if your participles are dangling? Hire a human.

Have any good spell-checking horror stories?

More Words We Love To Hate

According to a recent Marist College poll of over a thousand American adults, “whatever” was chosen as the most annoying word or phrase for the second year in a row. “Like” came in right behind it. Other irksome terms included “you know what I mean,” “to tell you the truth,” and “actually.”

Actually, to tell you the truth, I’m in complete agreement. Word One and Word Two are simply irritating space holders; our current versions of “uh” and “um.” “Actually” says nothing. “To tell you the truth” makes me think the speaker or writer normally doesn’t tell the truth, but is choosing to do so now.

Oh, now they’ve done it. They’ve fired up this grammar geek’s engine of irritation. Now I’ll have to add my personal language pet peeves that flab up your work and generally make what could be lean, mean writing a fluffy, obtuse mess.

1. In order to

Tell me, why is this flitter of words necessary? Consider this sentence:  “In order to get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first.”

Why not: “To get the cat into her carrier, we had to tranquilize her first.” You get double the bang for your grammar buck; lose a couple words and make a clearer sentence. Or simply rewrite the whole sucker: “We had to tranquilize the cat to get her into her carrier.” Done.

2. It is what it is

This was cute for a while, but is now way past its expiration date. It’s back there with the green goo that used to be ricotta cheese. Its current use as a kind of verbal shrug has ruined what was once a brilliantly simple tenet of Zen philosophy. Thanks a heap.

3. Rain event

Have you noticed this creeping into our weather forecasts? As in, “We’re expecting a rain event to slowly move into the Northeast.” Why can’t it just rain? Or is that not technical-sounding enough to justify all those whiz-bang graphics?

4. At the end of the day

What, “when all is said and done” isn’t good enough for you? (Seriously, that sucks, too.) This tired phrase needs to be retired. What if we tailor this throwaway phrase into something more specific, depending on the situation? In politics, one could say, “When we finish digging through the mess the previous administration left behind.” Or, in the case of any PR nightmare, “When we figure out who’s to blame.”

5. On a daily basis

Another useless chunks of words. Comedy writers seem to like this one. As in, “While I appreciate the occasional romp through a dumpster, it’s not something I enjoy on a daily basis.” The rhythm is kind of nice, but the tune’s been played.

6. Often

Did I miss the announcement that we are now supposed to pronounce the “t”? Maybe I was, like, somewhere else at the time. Maybe I was researching the history of the word and its storied pronunciation past. Before the 17th century, according to Random House, the “t” was pronounced. Then it was gradually dropped by well-educated English speakers, American and British, and is now considered the preferred pronunciation. Sometimes contemporary speakers have added the “t” in a misguided attempt to sound erudite, which, at least in my opinion, makes you sound like you’re trying too hard. After all, we don’t pronounce the “t” in soften, fasten, listen, or glisten. But as more of us say “AWF-tin” and become accustomed to hearing it, it may sneak its way back into favor. Please stop. Friends don’t let friends sound stupid.

7. Ad experience

I saw this recently on Hulu.com.At a commercial break, I was shown three alternative images and asked, “Which ad experience would you prefer?” Unfortunately, there was no option for “None, thank you.” But… “Ad experience”? If I’m seeing an ad, aren’t I already experiencing it?

8. Completely destroyed

This is one of my favorite phrases to hate, and one still used by many otherwise literate journalists. “Destroyed” is… destroyed. Done. Finito. No more. The building is a pile of rubble; call in the backhoes. “Completely” is redundant. And there is no “partially destroyed” just as there is no “partially pregnant.”

What are your favorite irksome phrases and groan-worthy words? And how do you pronounce “often”?