69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong (2)

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Confusing Computer

Word processors sometimes say correct grammar is wrong, especially passive verbs and acceptable uses of normally-wrong structures.

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THE FAILINGS OF COMPUTERISED GRAMMAR CHECKING

Most computer word processors include a grammar-checking facility to help writers find and correct their own grammar mistakes. However, this kind of aid is nowhere near as reliable as spellchecking software. It often misses grammar mistakes altogether (see 138. Test your Command of Grammar), or it underlines wording that is perfectly grammatical. In the latter case, many writers who cannot see what they have done wrong understandably choose to accept the computer’s suggested rewording, trusting that their own poor understanding of grammar is the cause of their confusion.

Recognising the failings of grammar-checking software is an important way of gaining confidence as a writer, and it also helps to prevent computer companies from having an undue influence on language use. In this and the previous post I am presenting a number of examples of computer software wrongly criticising English grammar usage, and offering some general guidelines on when this is likely to happen.

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COMPUTER CRITICISMS OF PASSIVE VERBS

Sometimes sentences are underlined because they are quite long and have their main verb in the passive voice. The advice is usually to make the verb active. The “problem” that the programmers see here is not so much one of grammar as of style: the criticised passive verbs usually break no grammar rules but are perceived instead to be over-complicated, “clumsy” or “unnatural” (see 100. What is a Grammar Error? and 142. Reasons for Passive Verb Errors).

This advice is questionable because it is based on opinion rather than scientific fact. I have argued elsewhere (see 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs) that the very existence of the passive voice in English is taken by Linguistics experts to be evidence of its value. Much work has been done to establish exactly what this value is (see, for example, my own article within these pages entitled Active-Passive Paraphrases in English and What They Mean for Teaching). It is true that the active voice is more common than the passive in English, but the mere fact that a computer word processor has underlined a passive voice verb does not necessarily mean that the verb should be replaced by an active.

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STRUCTURES THAT ARE USUALLY WRONG BUT SOMETIMES RIGHT

Computers seem to have been programmed with a list of English grammar combinations that they must highlight as wrong. The problem is that a surprisingly large number of usually-wrong grammar combinations can become correct in particular circumstances (see 124. Structures with a Double Meaning), a possibility that the programmers seem not to have given enough recognition to.

An example of a usually-wrong combination is the addition of the verb BE plus the -ing ending (normally markers of the present continuous tense in English) to a verb like KNOW, SEEM or OWN, which cannot usually be in this tense. Here is a case where this combination is definitely wrong:

(a) *Even the youngest of the children is knowing complicated algebra.

The underlined verb should, of course, have the present simple tense form knows, not the present continuous.

Yet combinations like is knowing are of a kind that can become correct in the right circumstances. Here is how:

(b) The key to sounding formal in writing is knowing which words to avoid.

This is a perfectly acceptable sentence, with the message that the key = knowing which … . In grammatical terms, is is not an auxiliary verb combining with a participle to make the present continuous tense of KNOW, but is the verb BE on its own (meaning “equals”) combining with a noun-like use of -ing (i.e. a “gerund” rather than a “participle” – see 71. Gerund and Participle Uses of “-ing”) and making it into a “complement” (for more on these two uses of BE, see 3. Multi-Use Words). This must be the right interpretation because interpreting is knowing as a present continuous verb is not only grammatically suspect but also produces the illogical statement that a non-living thing (a key) can do something only possible for living creatures (“knowing”).

The probably-rare possibility of verbs like KNOW correctly coming between BE and -ing seems to be one that computer grammar programmers have not catered for. This is because the verb in sentence (b) above is usually given coloured underlining when I type it with my word processor, with the suggestion that I “correct” it to knows.

Various other English grammar structures are likewise marked wrong by my computer when in fact they are right but are following a rather unusual grammar rule. Examples are:

(c) Not all active verbs with no following noun are a problem.

(d) Both words can act as conjunctions, which means having a following subject + verb.

(e) They start the new year in September.

My computer’s suggested correction of (c) is to change no into a, on the grounds that only one negative (not) is necessary. The common error that the computer thinks is present is the use of two negative words to express the meaning of just one, a practice that is correct in some non-standard English dialects but rarely acceptable in writing, like this:

(f) *The refugees did not have no money (= The refugees had no money).

The indicators of this error are not and no used together. The computer does not seem to “know” that they occasionally go correctly together in sentences like (c), cancelling each other out (see 9. Double Negatives), and hence it always marks their co-occurrence as wrong. The way a human writer knows when not … no is correct is by thinking about the resultant meaning – something that computers seem very weak at.

In sentence (d), the computer wants the singular-showing -s of the verb means to be removed, on the grounds that its subject which has been given plural meaning by the noun immediately before it (conjunctions). The reality is that which does not have this meaning, but rather stands for the whole of the preceding statement can act as conjunctions, a singular idea. The computer seems not to have been programmed to bear in mind this less common possibility of a whole statement before which determining its meaning rather than a single word (see 28. Pronoun Errors). Perhaps the consideration of logical meaning in order to choose between equally grammatical interpretations is especially difficult for computer programs.

In (e), the common error that the computer thinks it recognises is the use of new year without capital letters. The program seems unaware that this phrase can sometimes have small letters, and that the choice once again depends on meaning: if the new year in question is the calendar event of 1st January, or its celebration, then capitals are necessary; but otherwise they are not. More about this variability in the use of some capital letters can be read in the Guinlist post 62. Choices with Capital Letters.

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SPELLINGS THAT USUALLY MEAN ONE THING BUT SOMETIMES MEAN SOMETHING ELSE

English spellings representing two or more different words are examined in detail in the post 11. Homonyms and Homographs. I suspect that, when one of the words is rare or unconventional, they can be as problematic for grammar-checking programs as they are for English learners reading. Consider the following extract, which my computer wrongly said contained a “fragment” (“fragments” tend to be mentioned a lot in mistaken criticisms by computers):

(g) Each new birth confronted my parents with a major childcare problem, since my father never seemed able to take time off from his very demanding work.  Leo’s arrival, some months after our change of address, particularly sticks in my memory.

The computer thought something vital was absent from the second of the two sentences here. Typically, no indication was given of what exactly this vital element was, but knowing that it usually turns out to be either the subject or the verb of the sentence, I followed the useful first step of looking carefully at the main verb of the sentence (sticks), and was soon able to hypothesise that the computer analysed this word as a noun, since it often is one and is slightly informal as a verb. This meant the sentence seemed to lack a main verb, and hence had to be labelled a “fragment”.

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