One might assume that usage books and style manuals are the reference sources for those seeking advice on correct grammar or proper language usage. However, computers have changed the ways in which we communicate, and grammar and usage have not been spared. Language advice now comes in various forms on the Internet, and grammar rules and style recommendations are incorporated in grammar and style checkers in word-processing software. This raises all sorts of interesting questions regarding the effects of grammar and style checkers on language use and attitudes to language usage.
Users of Microsoft Word, the most widespread word-processing software, are likely to be familiar with the green squiggly line. Whenever you make a grammatical or stylistic error, the program alerts you to it by underlining the problematic sequence, and often offers ‘correct’ options. Although this may seem fairly straightforward, an issue that arises is that grammar and style are not as fixed as spelling. It is also somewhat unclear what grammar rules and style recommendations form the basis of the program’s error-flagging process.
What impact does this functionality have on Microsoft Word users? Is this kind of grammar and style monitoring useful, does the Microsoft Word grammar and style checker act as an ‘invisible grammarian’ that perpetuates conservative ideas about language usage and style?
Examining the experiences of Microsoft Word users may reveal quite a lot about the actual influence of the grammar and style checker on people’s perceptions about language use. Do people accept the program’s suggestions uncritically, or do they engage with it and adapt the settings based on their own stylistic preferences? Do they alter their sentences just to make the squiggly line disappear or do they turn the grammar checker off completely? To find out, I launched a short survey on the topic; readers are invited to contribute by filling out the survey available at http://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today/. All feedback will be greatly appreciated and the findings will be presented on the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog.