What are your thoughts on the Microsoft grammar and style checker?

In the past two years, we’ve been publishing a series of interactive features in the journal English Today as a way to engage more readers in issues of interest to our research project. (Past features can also be found on the English Today page on our blog.) The eighth interactive feature, published in the latest issue of English Today, relates to a blog post I wrote about the influence of the Microsoft grammar and style checker on the attitudes to grammar and correctness of people who use the program.

What I find most interesting in this respect is what those of you who use Microsoft Word think of the grammar and style checker. Do you customise your settings, or do you rely on the default options? Do you accept the program’s suggestions, or do you get annoyed by them? To find out more about these and related questions, I have launched a short survey; I’d be really grateful if you could take a couple of minutes to fill out the survey and let me have your thoughts in this issue.


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Ingrid Tieken interviewed by Paul Brians

Last week, Paul Brians interviewed Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade about her work in the Bridging the Unbridgeable project and about the book she is writing on usage guides as a text type. A podcast of the interview was published on Paul Brians’ weblog.

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Happy birthday, Paul Brians!

Another one of our usage guide writer’s birthdays! Paul Brians is the author of Common Errors in English Usage, published in 2003, one of the usage guides in our HUGE database. Paul also has a website, a blog, a daily calendar (for his birthday today, he chose if not: read more about it here). He turned 73 today: happy birthday, Paul, and many happy returns of the day!

(What irony, Paul, when we joked yesterday during your interview of me about Friday 13th, that for me, at 5 pm, the day was almost over, and for you, at 8 am, it was still to begin. We grieve with the French and worry about Europe’s future …)

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Hoary witticisms and other prescriptivist jokes

In going through our usage guides, we occasionally come across linguistic jokes – not terribly funny, admittedly, but they apparently appeal to writers on usage. And they have done so from the earliest days of the usage guide tradition onwards, so they may be said to be part of the genre. We once conducted a poll to see whether modern readers still appreciate the jokes found in Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence (1856). Few people took the poll, so perhaps they no longer do (you may want to find out for yourself if you have a moment to spare).

Here is a more recent one, which I just found in Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989):

Frank Vizetelly

feel bad, feel badly It is a standard joke of usage writers to remark that someone who says “I feel badly” must be complaining about a defective sense of touch, or thick gloves, or numb fingers. The Joe Miller who invented this hoary witticism may have been Frank Vizetelly, whose 1906 A Desk-Book of Errors in English has this: “However, feel badly is correct when the intention is to say that one’s power of touch is defective…” Subsequently joining the merry band of misunderstanders we find Bierce 1909, Evans 1961, Harper 1975, 1985, Freeman 1983, Kilpatrick 1984, and others. Of course, they know and we know that people who say “I feel badly” simply mean they feel bad.

I do wonder whether such jokes are effective ways of explaining readers what is wrong with a particular construction, here the use of bad as a flat adverb.

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Adding the Mx: Gender-neutral titles and pronouns

In the Q&A section of the Chicago Manual of Style Online, a question was posed about editing out they as a personal pronoun in reference to a transgender person. Here is the disputed sentence:  “During Harry’s senior year, they were one of five contestants.” The answer provided on the website was “since the author makes a point of explaining the use of they/them”, “to edit it out would be overstepping.”

We’ve written several times on this blog about the singular they usage problem, and we featured a blog post summarizing the findings of Klazien Tilstra’s BA thesis on the changing attitudes towards the pronoun’s usage.

In the sentence above, however, singular they is not used as a generic pronoun, but as a pronoun in reference to a person not comfortable being addressed with masculine or feminine pronouns. Although it might catch some readers’ attention, this usage is nothing new in the transgender community, along with the usage of the honorific Mx – a title devoid of gender qualifications following the M* pattern (Mr, Ms, Miss, Mrs). Mx is widely accepted by many UK companies and organisations and it has been in use since the 1970s. Here is a snippet from the 1982 Google Group Usenet archive advocating the usage of Mx, and giving guidelines on the title’s pronunciation.

Google Group Usenet MX

This is a case in point of what Curzan in Fixing English (2014) refers to as politically responsive prescriptivism (“rules/judgements that aim to promote inclusive, nondiscriminatory, politically correct, and/or politically expedient usage”) – you can read more on this topic in Stan Carey’s post on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

MxAlthough its usage is still in the process of being spread and accepted, Mx’s time is quite certainly coming (the OED is considering adding an entry for it). As pointed out in the Merriam-Webster blog, it wasn’t until 1986 that the New York Times fully adopted Ms, now the default  form of address for women.

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Happy birthday, Harry Blamires!

Harry Blamires (b. 1916) is the oldest living usage guide writer in our HUGE database, and what is more, he has turned 99 today!

Harry Blamires wrote several books on English, such as English in Education (of which I was told by the archivist of Winchester College that they possess a copy from 1951) and The Cassell Guide to Common Errors in English published in 1998 (of which I possess a copy myself). The book we included in the database is The Queen’s English, published in 1994.

In this book, which is still for sale today, we are able to read among many other things that Harry Blamires was not a fan of the modern use of hopefully: “It is a pity that this word has been adopted as a quick way of interjecting ‘I hope’ into a sentence, because it has its own useful connotation”. Though this use of the word has become so widespread today that it might seem futile, twenty years later, to try and make speakers revert to the use of “I hope that …” instead, let us do so for today in celebration of Harry Blamires’ 99th birthday:

Dear Harry, the Bridging the Unbridgeable research project would like to wish you a happy birthday! We hope that you will have a lovely day today and that we may be able to celebrate your 100th birthday next year!


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What’s the fuss about the controversial SPaG test?

The 2016 version of the Key Stage 2 Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar test, also known as SPaG test, has made the headlines in the UK again. Michael Rosen has often voiced his concerns about the test publically and did so again in an open letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan in The Guardian. In this letter, Rosen describes the test as suffering from a “severe case of terminology-itis” and doubts the actual purpose of the test by stating the following:

“Though this test’s apparent purpose is to examine children’s knowledge of language, I think its main purpose is to grade children. That’s why some of the questions are based on stacked-up levels of abstraction and some are trick questions.”

What I find interesting in the discussion is the argument that the questions included in the SPaG test have “right and wrong answers”. Rosen, however, argues that going through the sample test, he was able to identify multiple correct answers to some questions.

The Independent reported the story and included ten sample questions in a quiz. These not only include matters of punctuation, such as correct comma placement or apostrophes, but the quiz also requires you to identify prepositions, past tense forms and passives. Announcing the article on Facebook, the Independent stated that “[a]nyone who gets more than 5/10 has our eternal respect”.  Take the quiz here and let us know what you think about the test in the comments below!

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