A few years ago, Robin Straaijer wrote a blog post about Microsoft’s Grammar Checker. He had been inspired to write the post after hearing Anne Curzan speak on the topic during the ICEHL-17 conference at Zürich in 2012. Reading Anne Curzan’s book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (2014), which includes a chapter on the same topic, I feel similarly inspired.
The question the chapter prompted with me was to find out which usage problems the Grammar Checker deals with. As I’ve already explained a couple of times on this blog, I’m listing the usage problems dealt with in various usage guides for the book I’m writing on the genre, so what I want to find out now is how Microsoft’s Grammar Checker compares with Pinker (2014), Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010) or with Amis (1996) (and others as well, of course).
How to find out? At home, I use Microsoft Office 2007, and later versions may work differently. First click on the Home button in a Word document, then select Word Options at the bottom. Click on Proofing, then on When Correcting Spelling and Grammar in Word, set the option to Grammar & Style, and then go to Settings. You then get to see this:
Not particularly helpful: all you see here are general headings like Sentence structure or Wordiness. How are these defined? When do they become problematical? What is the problem with Relative clauses, does Microsoft engage in which hunting perhaps? Two headings are more specific: Sentences beginning with And, But, and Hopefully (two “old chestnuts” that are treated in many usage guides, including Pinker’s) and the perennial Split infinitive, though only when more than one word is involved.
Very interesting indeed: I remember the time when split infinitives were banned altogether, though I don’t have any print-screen images from those days. I did notice about five years ago, though, that split infinitives had been accepted as correct language use by Microsoft’s linguists (if such people exist).
No squiggle anymore, whether red or green! An earlier version contains a different, more polite phrasing of the same message. I did make a print-screen image of that at the time:
Somewhere along the line someone must be making decisions about changes like these. I’d very much like to know how this works and who these people are. Linguists, hopefully.