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Can You Trust a Grammar and Style Checker?

by Jeff Karon

The simple answer is no. The one used in Microsoft Word will catch the following error: “However I went to the store.” A comma should be inserted after “However.” But the same program will mark the same word as needing a comma in the following: “However I went to the store I would be late.” The word is functioning differently and does not need a comma, so if you insert one (or let a program insert one for you), your writing will be incorrect.

In “However I went to the store but I came home,” the program correctly notes that a comma is needed after “However,” but fails to note the needed comma before “but” (sometimes writers leave out commas when the two independent clauses are very short, yet in this case no matter how long the second clause, Word will not mark the needed comma). If a grammar and style checker has trouble with just one word, imagine how it can mess up a whole manuscript, which is just why human editors often avoid using such programs.

Jeff Karon has edited over 100 books, articles, stories, and poems across a broad range of disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and business.

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