In a spurt of perhaps misplaced machismo most creative writing teachers tell you to turn off proofing tools, a category of word processor feature that includes spelling and grammar checkers. For some time I’ve wondered if this is hasty. As you might expect, as an anti-Luddite I believe we should accept help from computers whenever possible – and be grateful we live in a time where such help is available. Therefore, this time around I attempt to show how proofing tools can help any writer – provided the writer remains in control and watches out for caveats.
Bending the rules
Before all that, however, arises a question: Are proofing tools useful nowadays? Spell checking certainly is – even if your spelling is perfect you will certainly make typos that it can catch – but when it comes to grammar a big difference in our modern age compared to even a few decades ago is that rules are bent out of shape on a daily basis. For example, despite being arguably the canonical example of English usage, the BBC refers to organisations such as sports teams as plural rather than the technically correct singular. Similarly, any boldly-going Star Trek fan will tell you the split infinitive verb rule isn’t as tight as it once was, while sentence clauses or even discrete sentences are increasingly separated by inelegant dashes or commas. And sentences are allowed to start with conjunctions, while prepositions can be used to end them with!
There are many more examples, so making your writing strictly grammatically correct can be as damning as getting it wrong. A particularly dim editor might think your work contains elementary errors.
Perhaps the bottom line is that any computerised proofing tool is only as useful as your own knowledge of the requirements and rules – both formal and informal. Proofing tools are for checking your writing and should not dictate its content or style.
Let’s dig down into spell checking. Because most computer software originates in the USA, a common issue we Brits face is that the word processor’s spell checking dictionary defaults to the American English setting. An amazing number of writers I know grumblingly work around this rather than fixing it. While most know to avoid errors like color/colour, the American English dropping of double letters in many words such as labeled/labelled is not only less well known but also harder to spot on-screen.
However, switching the default language for new documents is easy. In Microsoft Word, click the File ribbon, and then the Options menu entry at the left. In the dialogue box that appears, click the Language entry in the list at the left. If there’s already an English (United Kingdom) entry in the list, select it and then click Set As Default. If there’s no entry for UK English in the list, click the Add Additional Editing Languages dropdown list, find English (United Kingdom) within it, then click the Add button alongside. Then follow the earlier steps to ensure it’s set as the default.
To switch the language setting of an existing document, highlight all of it (Ctrl+A) and then click the English (United States) entry on the status bar at the bottom. Then select English (United Kingdom) from the dialog box that appears.
In a questionable bid for cosmopolitanism a minority of word processor dictionaries mix US and UK English, permitting the likes of color as well as colour. They’re aiming to represent the woefully lax “Internet English”. My advice if this malaise affects your software: switch to something better. It has its faults but Microsoft Word still can’t be beat for most writers.
Ways of correction
Word processors proofing tools typically work in three different ways. The first is called auto-correct, in which errors are instantly swapped out as soon as you type them for what the word processor believes is correct.
The second method is where errors are underlined on-screen as you type, but not automatically corrected. Spelling errors or typos are underlined in red, while grammar errors are underlined in either blue or green (although might also be underlined in red). Hovering the mouse cursor over the underlined word or phrase, or right-clicking it, will summon a pop-up window or menu showing either the suggested correction or an explanation of what the error is supposed to be.
The third method is the traditional manual sweep through of the document in which clicking the option makes a dialogue box appear and anything the word processor believes is incorrect is excerpted, with a suggested correction shown beneath. You can select whether to accept or reject the suggestion.
Because the computer can be wrong when identifying errors, especially when it comes to grammar, turning off auto-correction is a pretty good idea. You’ll find the relevant setting in Microsoft Word by clicking the File ribbon, then the Options menu entry, and click the Proofing entry. Click the AutoCorrect Options button. Subsequently remove the ticks from all the boxes within the AutoCorrect tab and the other tabs, although at the very least remove the tick alongside Automatically Use Suggestion From The Spelling Checker.
To turn off underlining of errors, which can be a distraction when you’re writing, again select the File ribbon, then the Options menu entry, and select Proofing from the menu. Then remove the tick alongside the Check Spelling As You Type heading, and the Mark Grammar Errors As You Type heading.
To subsequently undertake a manual spelling and/or grammar pass-through of the document, click the Review ribbon and then the Spelling & Grammar button.
Where’s your grammar?
While spell checkers are usually correct, grammar checkers are wrong much of the time. This is because true grammar checking requires actual understanding and computing technology hasn’t yet reached that stage. Grammar checkers are also obsessed with the passive and active voice, which mirrors that of the US educational establishment. Many writers in the UK haven’t even heard of this – I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even mentioned at my school – but if you want to know more then just hit Google, where you’ll find thousands of explanations.
In the latest 2016 release, Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has been virtually eradicated. Apparently, the goal is to add a new tool soon but gone is the Styles option of earlier releases of Word, in which you could choose how strict you wanted the grammar checker to be (with the Formal setting being like having a rather dense manager sitting on your shoulder, incorrectly criticising nearly every sentence you write). Instead, what’s left of the grammar checker now only searches for elementary errors, such as the wrong apostrophe usage.
However, a new generation of writing tool has taken the concept of grammar checking and run a mile with it. In addition to the likes of basic verb and noun agreements these tools check for overwriting, clichés, redundant phrasing and much more. While they’re still inclined to make mistakes in what they flag as incorrect, www.languagetool.org and www.polishmywriting.com are good free-of-charge examples. You simply paste your copy into the web page to check it. However, I’m grateful to the makers of ProWritingAid (prowritingaid.com), who invited me to take a look at the premium version of their writing tool. This costs $40 per year and includes a plugin for Microsoft Word so there’s no need to check your work via their website.
I used its online checker not just to look over some of my own work but also some snippets from news sites. Its suggestions where genuinely interesting, if not acutely useful – it told me to replace “during the course of” with the simpler and more readable “during”, for example, and spotted some unclosed quotation marks in written dialogue. By identifying vague word usage it allowed me to considerably tighten-up some journalism.
While I can’t argue proofing tools like ProWritingAid are a necessity, they certainly provide an invaluable perspective on your work. For example, even if you disagree when a long sentence is highlighted as being difficult to read, it’ll still make you consider that sentence afresh in a whole new context – and how many of us become word-blind to our own texts across hundreds of drafts? In my opinion, rewriting to avoid even a questionable error flagged by a proofing tool can be a healthy thing – which is why simply ignoring or deactivating proofing tools can be hasty.