5.5 Using Algorithms to Correct Your Writing
Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami
Note that grammar and spell-check programs (including the ones built into word processing software like Microsoft Word and applications like Grammarly) do a good job of identifying potential errors—but they won’t catch all problems, nor will they always suggest the ideal fix. Algorithms simply aren’t sophisticated enough to understand the context or situation you are writing within (remember, grammar is a situated practice!). Let’s see what happens when a few spelling and grammar algorithms are asked to fix a sentence:
According to Microsoft’s spelling and grammar program, the only problem here is the word “uum ali,” which is actually an accepted spelling of the name of an Egyptian version of bread pudding. According to Google Docs, “ali” is fine, but “uum” is misspelled; additionally “were eating” might be changed to “ate,” and “hole” might be changed to “whole.” No program catches that the second sentence needs to be corrected to “Neither Carlos nor Silas has” since the neither/nor construction sets up a singular subject. The opening “sentence” is actually a dependent clause, not really a complete English sentence according to the rules of formal written English. “Desert” is a perfectly spelled example of the English word for a dry, empty place, but probably doesn’t apply to “pie” or “uum ali” (which are examples of dessert, a sweet food customarily eaten at the end of a meal). And the phrase “a friend who stuffed” may not be grammatically incorrect, but it doesn’t make much sense.
Instead of using grammar and spell-check programs to find and fix all of the errors in your writing, think of them as useful tools, but not replacements for your keen eye. Sometimes they will point out that a word is misspelled or a sentence that is badly formed. Even in those cases, you will need to think critically about the program’s evaluation and suggestion—is it right or wrong? In addition, you will still need to have human readers—including you!—work their way through the text.
Online translation programs have similar problems of not being able to tell when a word or phrase isn’t right. The opening lines of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes are as follows:
I seem to have trouble dying. By all rights, I should not have lived this long. But I still can smell trouble riding on any wind, just as surely as I could tell you whether it is a stew of chicken necks or pigs’ feet bubbling in the iron pot on the fire.
Running this chunk of text through a translator into French and then Japanese and then back into English yields this:
I have a hard time dying. Obviously, I shouldn’t have lived so long. But you can feel the problem no matter how you ride it, as you can clearly see if it’s a chicken neck stew or a pork leg is frothing in an iron pan.
The first two sentences are more-or-less comparable to the first two sentences of the original excerpt. But you can see that by the third sentence, something has gone awry. In the original, the first-person narrator is suggesting that their senses are still sharp despite their age: their eyes and nose can differentiate between two similar types of food simmering over a fire. In the translation, the metaphorical language has been misinterpreted in such a way that the narrator appears to be suggesting something quite different: that a chicken neck stew and a frothing pork leg are somehow “problems” in need of solving. The resulting sentence is virtually nonsensical.
The above isn’t an isolated case. The opening lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby provides another good example of the phenomenon described above:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.
Running this second chunk of text through a translator into French and then Japanese and then back into English yields this:
The grammar doesn’t go wrong until the second sentence here (“remember that he told me”), but the sense is certainly different. “Perks” and “advantages” are actually quite different concepts. Not to mention “remember that he told me” simply does not make sense.
To date, no algorithm is as effective as real human beings at reading a piece of writing and finding places where the language needs to be adjusted for correctness or clarity. It’s normal to have difficulty spotting errors in your own writing because you get used to looking at your work, eventually seeing past any mistakes and perceiving only what you meant to write. It’s a type of tunnel vision. That’s why even professional academic writers who submit an article or book chapter for publication will regularly get a set of corrections sent to them by a copy-editor whose job it is to catch and suggest fixes for errors and inconsistencies. Even so, an eagle-eyed reader will sometimes spot a spelling or punctuation mistake that made it into print!
While you will never learn to improve your own writing if you let others fix mistakes for you—that is, if you have someone edit your writing—it’s a great idea to ask a classmate, roommate, family member, or writing centre staff to help you find places in your text that seem like errors or just not-the-best-way-of-expressing-an-idea. You are then completely responsible for figuring out what’s wrong (if there really is something wrong!) and coming up with a good solution. The best way to make sure you’re not getting the wrong kind of help is to ensure that no one else actually writes or types into your writing assignment. Writing Centre staff, course instructors, and teaching assistants have experience and training that makes them especially good at identifying examples of one type of error, explaining why it’s a problem, and demonstrating how you might address that problem.
Sometimes trying to edit your own work can be intimidating. Where should you start? We’ve provided a few tips to get you started. We can’t stress enough how important it is to read through your own work slowly and carefully. Sentence by sentence, go through your work and see if you can find any errors. Whether you spend hours or fifteen minutes before your assignment is due, you may save yourself not just precious marks but you may just build credibility as well. You might be wondering how you should go about editing your own work. We definitely have some ways you can approach this task:
Some people like to print out a hard copy of a written text and mark errors by hand with a pen or pencil. If you’re looking for sentence-level problems, it can be very effective to read an essay draft out of order—from the last sentence to the first sentence or from a middle paragraph to the first paragraph—to stay focused on mechanics rather than getting caught up in ideas.
Other people find it helpful to read their work aloud to themselves or to have their computers read the text aloud—it can be easier to hear when something is “wrong” than to see it on the page.
Still others read a text several times looking for a different type of grammar or punctuation issue each time, starting with basic mechanics like whether every sentence starts with a capital letter and ends with a period and moving up to sentence-level concerns.
Experiment with different strategies, and eventually you will find you have the ability to write with style while staying in control and making choices about correctness.