Wednesday, December 26, 2012

How to choose an English Grammar Checker

English Grammar Checkers Online

By Joel from Davis, CA, United States 
[CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
via Wikimedia Commons
There are a number of free online grammar checkers to choose from these days. Go ahead. Do a Google search using the search terms "English grammar checker" and you will see.

Some grammar checkers are free, some are pay-for-use, and some are just plain useless. If you teach English writing, you may be wondering which is the  right grammar checker for your learners.

To help you make the right choice, I put two English grammar checkers to the test to illustrate how each was designed with a different learner population in mind.

Wordiness and L1 Writing

Most grammar checkers have been designed to help first language (L1) writers detect and correct inadvertent mistakes and style errors. College-age writers struggling for the first time with the rigours of an academic style tend to fill their essays with redundant phrases, perhaps in an effort to achieve the minimum assigned word count. The sentence below is a great example of the kind of wordiness that abounds in L1 student writing. It seems to want to say something significant, but it contains far too many useless words. They obscure the idea that the sentence hopes to convey.
Due to the fact that access to internet resources are actually at the present time very easy to access in many places, the vast majority of users seek to have those kinds of devices that are most easy to carry around with them wherever they go.

I found this particular example in Dr. Kim Blank's wordiness list. The good doctor offers the following sentence as a worthy (less wordy) alternative:
 Because the Internet is available most places, users often prefer portable devices.
A good First Language (L1) grammar checker should help writers eliminate wordiness errors from their writing, In this regard, Grammark is a good L1 grammar checker. Plug the the first example into Grammark, and it  catches four wordiness errors. With its database of 973 wordy phrases, it is bound to help writers to excise much of the clutter from their writing. The Grammark grammar checker will not rewrite the sentence for you minus the errors. That you have to do yourself. As far as I know, no machine can rewrite your paper for you.  Rather,  grammar checkers like Grammark attempt to alert the writer to common errors inexperienced writers make in order to promote self-correction.

Grammar Checkers as Pedagogical Power Tools

Alerting a writer to errors achieves two important goals: 1) it helps the writer to eliminate errors from the draft he or she is writing at the moment, and 2) it helps the learner to eliminate those same errors from all future drafts by teaching the writer to recognize them in his or her writing. In other words, a grammar checker can help the learner both to revise bad writing and to learn the standards of good writing. As such, grammar checkers are power tools for teachers. Like other power tools, they don't replace master craftsmen, but they speed up the work.

Homophone Errors and L2 Writing

Catching homophone mix-ups is altogether a different problem for grammar checkers. You know them. They are everywhere in the comment sections of blogs and Youtube videos.  It's or its? Affect or effect? Your or you're?  Too, to, or two? There, they're, or their? We all confuse these homophones for each other on occasion, and so it is always best to have a second pair of eyes to proofread our writing whenever possible. It saves us from embarrassment. Consider these three (contrived) sentences.
Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.
Grammark, while undeniably helpful for first language writers of academic term papers and essays, is less of a champ at detecting homophone errors. It catches one (Their are → There are), but it misses the other four. Excellent in its own right, Grammark is not designed to catch grammatical errors of this kind. From what I can gather, it seems to be using a string matching technique, a method better suited for word choice or phrase choice errors. 

A Second Language Grammar Checker 

This is where a different kind of grammar checker really comes in handy. Less useful at detecting wordiness errors, the Virtual Writing Tutor sets its sights on overt grammar errors, the type of errors found in abundance in Second Language (L2) writing. Created to serve a different learner population, the Virtual Writing Tutor excels at catching homophone errors. Feed the same text into the Virtual Writing Tutor's text box, hit "Check grammar," the system returns five warnings, correctly identifying all the homophone errors. Here is what it says:


  1. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting...

    Feedback: Did you mean 'you're crazy' or 'you are crazy'? 'Your' is a possessive adjective like 'his' or 'her'.



  2. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mo...

    Feedback: It looks as though you have confused 'their' and 'there'. Did you mean 'there'?



  3. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.

    Feedback: Remember that 'to' is a preposition and 'too' is an adverb meaning 'excessively'. Did you mean 'too many', as in 'excessively many'?



  4. You wrote: Your crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.

    Feedback: You probably meant 'It's' not 'its'. The word 'its' is a possessive adjective like 'his' and 'her', but 'it's' is a contraction of the pronoun 'it' and the verb 'is'.



  5. You wrote: ...ur crazy! Their are to many errors! Its effecting my mood.

    Feedback: You probably meant 'It's affecting my...'. The verb 'to effect' means to bring about a change. The verb 'to affect' means to have an effect on something.

Take-home Message

The take-home message here is simple. Grammar checkers specialize in catching certain errors because they are aimed at different learner populations. The Virtual Writing Tutor is great at catching homophone errors because it is primarily a Second Language grammar checker. It specializes in catching the kinds of errors that writers of English as a Second Language tend to make, a learner population that is typically under-served by systems designed to catch first language writing errors.

Thoughts, comments, reflections? Leave a comment.

1 comment:

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