We’ve all been there. You are writing (what you think is) a perfectly good sentence in a Word document when, suddenly, the MS Word grammar checker tells you that you should consider revising the ‘fragment’, because something is wrong. Very often, it is quite unclear what is wrong or how the grammar checker decides what is a ‘fragment’ or how it spots grammatical or stylistic errors in a document.
Ingrid Tieken wrote recently that reading Anne Curzan’s latest book, Fixing English, prompted her to find out the usage problems that the MS Word grammar checker deals with. Around the same time, I was prompted to do the same thing when, while working on a paper, the MS grammar checker decided (out of the blue) that my passive clause was incorrect, and suggested correcting it into an active one. I don’t remember this happening before. Here’s proof number one:
A couple of days later, while writing this blog post, and simultaneously working on another document, it happened again! Proof number two:
So, passive constructions are now flagged in Word as mistakes. I wonder when this error category was introduced to the grammar checker and for what reasons, because passives are perfectly normal – or, in prescriptivist terms ‘correct’ – and it seems to me that it should be the author’s (stylistic) decision to use a passive rather than an active clause. (If you are interested in reading more about the odd obsession with the passive as a grammatical error, I strongly recommend Geoffrey Pullum’s brilliant and thorough discussion of the subject.) What’s even more intriguing, as Ingrid suggested as well, is who makes those decisions and based on what. So, I tried to find out more.
Unfortunately, my investigation on this hasn’t come to fruition yet, but I did find out that the MS grammar checker gives you two options: grammar and style, and you can decide whether you want to have only grammar errors flagged or both, grammar and style. Details about all this can be found here and you can choose how your grammar and style checkers work here. According to the FAQ page on Word grammar proofing, the style proofing option only appears in versions after 2002, so it’s not all that new. My guess is that the style checker is predominantly based on usage guides discussions of usage problems. This is quite important because, as Curzan points out in her book, the MS grammar (and style) checker is a powerful prescriptive force, not only in grammar, but in style as well. I think a lot of people would want to know what that’s based on. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.
In the meantime, stay calm, keep working, and don’t be intimidated by the grammar checker let the grammar checker intimidate you!