Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

APPENDIX A. Do the Grammar Checks Provided by Word Processing Programs Work?

Grammar and spelling checks provided by word processing programs are great at helping you catch issues in your work, such as spelling mistakes, grammar errors, or using passive voice instead of active voice. But trusting them unquestioningly is dangerous. Extremely dangerous.

For example, in my work as an editor, it’s not uncommon for Word to underline a phrase it thinks is grammatically incorrect. I right-click the word/phrase to see Word’s suggested change, make that change, and then frown when Word underlines the word/phrase I just changed and suggests that I change it back. Needless to say, the never-ending circle of changes like that causes me a massive headache.

The grammar checks in word processing programs can be helpful, but they’re far from perfect. Not only do they sometimes mark a sentence as incorrect no matter what you do to it, they also occasionally mark something as incorrect when it’s correct because they’re not smart enough to know the difference. They work on a set of hard rules when English grammar is actually rather fluid depending on the specific situation.

For example, some phrases or word orders also get marked as being grammatically incorrect when they are actually correct.

Do you remember when we talked about commonly confused words? The grammar and spelling check in your word processing program will often miss those. After all, the spelling is correct for some words…it’s just not the word you meant.

Finally, word processing programs aren’t always great at dealing with spelling. For example, words with a z in them are almost always spelled with an s in British English, often with an s in Australian English, rarely with an s in Canadian English, and never with an s in U.S. English. Examples include realizetheorizestandardizetenderize, etc. However, in Australian English, for example, many of those words are spelled correctly with either the s or the z, while they are almost never used with a z in British English.

Word processing programs’ dictionaries don’t contain every possible word or every possible spelling (even if you specify the correct language). Because of this, they often mark correctly spelled words as being spelled incorrectly.

This issue of spelling due to differences in versions of English also crops up in the which/that debate, as it is very normal for British and Australian English to use which to lead off restrictive clauses.

Spelling and grammar checks are invaluable tools, but you should make sure to arm yourself with the grammar knowledge you need in order to know if your word processor is wrong.