Making Your Grammar App Weep

Crocodile tears

One of the things I run across frequently when editing fiction MSs (manuscripts) is narrative that reads like the author has obeyed every suggestion that his/her grammar application has pointed out. This makes for extremely boring narrative. (I’ll get to dialogue in another post.)

Some computer writing programs point out only basic grammatical errors. Others are more eager to nitpick. (It is possible to change the settings of most grammar apps (applications).)

No matter how sophisticated the app, however, a machine can’t grasp the actual meaning of the sentence so this is why their “recommendations” are occasionally off base. Need I suggest using caution? Also, and this might surprise you: these programs don’t have much of a grasp of some of the underlying obscure grammar rules, either, like the difference between gerunds (“ing” words that [usually] take the possessive case) and participles (“ing” words that do not). Just last week, my app was arguing with me about it’s and its — and this is my favourite error to seek as an editor so I know I was right. But I did have a brief nightmare about WHY the app was so insistent.

I am not criticizing these apps in any way. The programmers will be able to perfect what we writers (fiction, especially) need when science perfects a thinking robot with emotions.

One thing the program I use is eager to point out (MS Word, because I happen to like it for editing) is what it considers to be run-on sentences. When it can’t find spellos or common grammatical errors, I suppose it feels duty bound to bug me about something else.

But I have to smile when I think of Patricia K. McCarthy’s grammar app’s mental health. In Ms McCarthy’s very popular Crimson Crimes series (http://www.patriciakmccarthy.com/), Granny, a recurring character, talks in nothing but run-on sentences and with no regard for even the proper words sometimes. Malapropisms abound when Granny waxes forth. Poor, dear grammar app: “Did you mean [such and such]?” “Run-on sentence!” “Consider revising!” “Did you mean [such and such]?” “Run-on sentence!” “Consider revising!”

Writing programs also have a terrible time with fractured sentences.

One of my clients writes with a unique and beautiful flowing cadence:

“There was something about the way he strolled through the halls with his hands in his pockets, the way he smiled at strangers, the way he could talk to anyone and seem at ease. As though failure and rejection were impossibilities. He was sure of himself. But it was more than mere confidence in self. It was as though he were sure about life itself, about its plan for him. As though his success was inevitable.” — Anita Kushwaha, Bloodlines.

. . . green wiggly lines appear on the screen as the grammar app oh so kindly offers its “suggestions”. The app wants us to insert “ands”; it complains about the incomplete sentences; it has a conniption fit.

If we were to obey the program and insert its desired ands and throw in a few semi-colons, tidy up Granny’s word choices and shorten her sentences, the app would be quite pleased.

But the passages would lose all their power.

We must keep in mind that most writing programs/applications were originally devised to be used in offices for writing letters (e.g., MS Word) to help secretaries spell things properly and for secretaries to be able to ensure no grammatical errors would embarrass their bosses.

Very quickly, “desktop publishing” came along and applications were massaged and the computer developed into having the capabilities for adding headers and footers, providing widow control, keeping footnotes where they belonged, making bibliographies and, blessed be, an easy-to-create index! “Books! We can do books now! Whole books!”

Your best bet would be to disengage your grammar app entirely and take a few (nay, several) courses in grammar and editing so you can learn how to do it right. This would involve some extra hours of work, but would save a lot of arguments with a mindless uncaring computer program.

The purpose of writing anything is to communicate your idea into another person’s head. If a potential reader happens to purchase a book you wrote that they can’t make hide nor tail of, you’ve not only lost that reader, but probably some of her friends as well. And even if you do learn how to do it properly in the future, that reader will still remember your name. As Granny might say: “Once the cat is out of the barn there’s no telling how high the cow might jump over the fiddle.”

If you want to communicate motivations and emotions, don’t trust a robot to tell you how. Believe in YOURSELF!

But take them grammar lessons first, eh? Yes. Next post? How to make characters characters through dialogue.

Next post June 6.

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them: http://www.amazon.com/Really-Stupid-Writing-Mistakes-Avoid/dp/1479308226

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story: http://www.amazon.com/Death-lAcadie-Kesk8a-Sherrill-Wark/dp/1511501154/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

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