Grammar checker face-off – spelling/grammar checkers – includes related articles on performance test results – Software Review – Evaluation
They Ain’t Perfect, but One of These Programs Can Polish Your Prose
Let’s face it. The English language is a metaphorical mine field. A single word can have a dozen different meanings, while a dozen different words often mean basically the same thing. Illogical spelling conventions confound even the most logical thinker. Should you ever manage to master these nuances of our unique language, myriad obscure or convoluted grammatical rules still litter the literary landscape, waiting to sabotage your personal and professional writing. Used wisely, a grammar checker can be an invaluable ally in this ongoing war of words.
HOW GRAMMAR CHECKERS WORK
As the name implies, the fundamental purpose of a grammar checker is to ensure that written documents emerge from your computer pristine and error-free. Almost all grammar checkers, including the stand-alone programs tested here and the ones that come in word-processing packages, can uncover potential problems in three critical areas. These are grammatical errors (incomplete sentences, subject-verb disagreements, tense shifts, double negatives, and the like), mechanical mistakes (misspellings, incorrect punctuation, misuse of capitalization, and so forth), and the weaknesses in style (the use of archaic or colloquial language, a reliance on jargon, overuse of the passive voice, repetitious phrases, and similar short-comings). Discovering and correcting such problems can improve the clarity of your writing, thereby adding to its effectiveness.
Many grammar checkers complement their basic operations with several useful writing tools. These include such on-line items as a thesaurus, a dictionary, and a style guide. One of our test programs, The Writer’s Toolkit, even throws in a dictionary of popular quotations, the judicious use of which can enhance your documents.
Running an electronic document through a grammar checker is not unlike handing a printed document to a copy editor. Both analyze your text to determine whether it contains any obvious errors or questionable passages. The biggest difference between the two is that a human editor often corrects any mistakes immediately, consulting with the writer only when necessary. Using a grammar checker, on the other hand, tends to be a more interactive process.
A grammar checker analyzes the contents of a file based on accepted grammatical rules (but the programs reviewed don’t use all the same rules, which explains why our test results vary greatly, as you’ll see). Should the software detect a potential error, it pauses and displays the text in question, just as most spelling checkers do. The grammar checker than briefly describes the problem and suggests ways to correct it (some checkers offer more detailed suggestions than others). You decide whether the suggestion is correct and, if it is, whether and how to modify your document.
Most grammar checkers can scan and edit files created using several popular word processors. All the MS-DOS and Windows-based programs we reviewed work with WordPerfect and Microsoft Word files. Four of these programs–PowerEdit being the only exception–also recognize files created by WordStar, Microsoft Works, Professional Write, PFS:Write, and XyWrite. Each program also supports additional word processors, although the specific ones differ. Similarly, the Macintosh grammar checkers support Word and WordPerfect files along with other popular Mac word processors such as WriteNow and MacWrite.
However, don’t despair if a particular grammar checker doesn’t work directly with files you created using your word processor, a new version of that program, or another type of application (such as a database). You’ll still be able to use the checker by converting the files into ASCII text. All grammar checkers can scan and analyze documents stored in this generic file format.
The latest grammar checkers offer a level of flexibility not found in earlier releases. Almost all of them let you select from several proofreading methods based on the type of writing being analyzed. PowerEdit, for example, can check your writing using the grammatical rules applied to any one of four different writing styles: Business, Technical, Literary, and Journalistic. Correct Grammar, on the other hand, adds a number of other styles to this list, including Advertising and Legal.
By modifying specific program settings, you can customize a grammar checker to reflect your personal writing style. For example, Grammatik lets you specify the number of modifiers that can appear in a split infinitive before you want the program to flag a potential error. The Grammatik documentation uses an expression familiar to any “Star Trek” fan to explain how this feature works: Specifying a single modifier would permit the phrase “to boldly go” to pass undetected; “to boldly and impulsively go,” on the other hand, would be caught.
Most grammar checkers also let you choose a level of formality based on a document’s target audience. The more formal the audience, the more stringently the program applies accepted grammatical rules and stylistic conventions. For example, most of the programs are much more forgiving of sentences written in the second person (such as “You can expect . . . “) when checking an informal document such as a personal letter. If you analyze a more formal document–a report or proposal, for example–the software would, in all likelihood, recommend that you replace this phrase with “One can expect.”
If you write about specialized topics, you’ll want a grammar checker that lets you store and reuse customized style guides. All the programs were reviewed provide this feature. One advantage to creating a customized style guide is that you can use it to standardize such items as brand names, trademarks, proper names, and other words or phrases specific to your business. Customized style guides also help you tailor a program’s performance to match your personal writing style. Because HOME-OFFICE COMPUTING covers the computer industry, much of our writing includes terminology that a grammar checker would generally question. Analyzing articles and reviews would be tedious if a grammar checker paused each time it encountered the phrase double click, a common mouse operation. A custom style guide eliminates this inconvenience.
CHECKING THE CHECKERS
Beneath all these buzzers and bells, however, a grammar checker’s primary purpose is to help you polish your prose. To test how well these programs achieve this goal in the real world, we selected samples of three common types of writing: a standard business letter, a letter that contains elements of a proposal, and an informal letter. We then ran ASCII versions of these files through several popular grammar checkers, including the DOS and Windows versions of Grammatik, RightWriter, Correct Grammar, and The Writer’s Toolkit, and a DOS-only version of PowerEdit. On the Macintosh side, we tested Grammatik, RightWriter, and Correct Grammar, as well as the Mac-only Sensible Grammar.
For each program, we chose the default writing style that most closely described the type of document being analyzed. In many cases, this was a perfect match. For example, all of the programs contain a specific style guide for business writing, which we used to check our sample business letter. Likewise, many programs offered a Proposal guide, which we used to check our proposal letter. The exception in this category on the PC side was PowerEdit, for which we substituted its Thesis or Report guide targeted at a business audience. However, for Macintosh computers, only RightWriter offers a Proposal guide; we used the Business writing style when checking the proposal letter with the other checkers.
The least formal setting seemed the most appropriate for our personal letter, given that none of the programs contained a style guide specifically intended for such correspondence. Each version of Grammatik, Correct Grammar, The Writer’s Toolkit, and Sensible Grammar includes a writing style guide called Informal, which we used. But since RightWriter does not include an Informal guide, we chose its General Business style instead. We thought that PowerEdit would provide the biggest challenge with this document, since the software is targeted primarily at the business user. Ironically, PowerEdit’s Custom setting, which we finally selected to analyze our personal letter, uncovered more blatant errors in this informal document than any of the other PC programs we tested.
Finally, we grouped each program’s responses to the text into three categories:
* Useful Suggestions consisted of actual errors the program detected or recommendations that improved the document.
* Incorrect Analysis consisted of instances where the program either diagnosed a problem incorrectly or offered erroneous suggestions.
* Considerations consisted of observations that related more to esthetics than absolutes.
* Our fourth category, Omissions, indicated the number of obvious errors that each program missed.
One procedural note: We did not characterize spelling errors as Omissions if the programs did not include a spelling checker. Instead, those grammar checkers that detected spelling errors received additional credit for catching misspelled words under the Useful Suggestions column.
One interesting aspect of this software genre is that, ignoring for the moment their obvious visual differences, the DOS and Windows releases of the same programs are virtual twins. They use the same dictionary and grammar-checking algorithms; as a result, they produced identical test results. However, the Macintosh versions of the three cross-platform programs–Correct Grammar, Grammatik, and RightWriter–produced results somewhat different from those of their PC cousins.
We performed our tests using the default settings for the selected writing style guide. As you review the test results, keep in mind that all these programs let you activate and deactivate specific grammar and style rules. Fine-tuning these settings–something you’ll probably do as you customize your grammar checker–theoretically would have improved each program’s test results.
Speaking of the results, they were fascinating. As you might suspect, much of the analysis and many of the recommendations were consistent for all the programs. Nevertheless, several differences came up, specifically in the level of assistance each offered. (This explains why the totals differ within the accompanying rating charts.) Perhaps most significantly, no program made it through a single file without at least one incorrect analysis or omission. That result reinforces our conclusion that the key to using a grammar checker is to use it wisely. These programs should be considered partners in your literary endeavors, not panaceas capable of curing your grammatical ills.
OPINIONS, OPTIONS, RECOMMENDATIONS
Among the grammar checkers we tested, Grammatik tended to provide the most gain for the least pain. It’s easy to use and turned in a performance that, although not always perfect, equaled or surpassed the competition in most categories.
However, Grammatik’s margin of victory was small, at best. Correct Grammar surpassed Grammatik’s results on the business letter and was almost as helpful on the other two test documents. For the same business document, The Writer’s Toolkit missed no errors and provided more useful advice than most. The incorrect suggestion this multifaceted program did offer concerning the date format represented an inconvenience more than an inherent flaw.
RightWriter’s most obvious deficiency is its lack of a spelling dictionary, a shortcoming it shares with PowerEdit and Sensible Grammar. This forces you to rely on a second utility for this critical stage of proofing. In addition, RightWriter on the Macintosh does not work interactively, as do all the other programs. Instead, it creates a marked-up version of your document, which you then compare with the original–an extra step some may find tedious, others may find instructive.
Clearly, a grammar checker is a valuable weapon you may want to add to your cache of equipment. But like all weapons, it must be handled carefully. You can’t just point a grammar checker blindly and expect it to hit all your linguistic targets. Using a grammar checker properly, however, can help improve your overall writing.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Freedom Technology Media Group
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group