Just a Peek - Grammar & Spelling, Part I: Grammatica
by- November 18th, 2005
"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people."
"Typos are very important to all written form. It gives the reader something to look for so they aren't distracted by the total lack of content in your writing."
"Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes."
Spelling and grammar errors plague many writers, and is as annoying to the author as it is to the reader. No one, it seems, is immune to these thematic faux pas. I'm sure you've seen spelling and grammar errors in the New York Times, Newsweek, and other prime news outlets, as well as in articles that appear here at TMO, my humble missives prime among them.
After finding errors in my article, many of you have written comments, some of them not very kind, and suggestions, a few of which are physically impossible. Still, I've read them and have taken your complaints to heart.
I already do a lot to limit the number errors in my articles, but, apparently that hasn't been enough, so, I'm on the hunt for some help in the form of software designed to assist writers. Over the course of the next couple of weeks I'll be checking out grammar and spell checking software to find out which, if any, can help me keep the gremlins out of my text.
The Complexity of Text
Conveying a thought is a tough business. There were several episodes in the Star Trek franchise that dealt with the complexities of conveying ideas between races that have little in common between them. Normally, the crew of the Enterprise had the Universal Translator handy which listened to what aliens were saying, made contextual references, including cultural, environmental, and differences in species, and then translated those references and ideas into words, following whatever rules of grammar that may apply for the listener. In the end, the Universal Translator made the ideas understood by all.
That's a tall order; almost as tall having a cup of Earl Grey tea appear just by saying so.
Even when your audience speaks the same language as you, it can be hard to put together the right words in the right sequence to convey a thought; differences in background can make even the most basic ideas hard to understand. So, following the rules of grammar for a particular language are essential if you want to be understood. This is what I believe the creators of Grammatica had in mind when they created it.
Grammatica offers in-application spelling and grammar checking in multiple languages and on several computing platforms, including Palm OS. The application is actually a parse-and-compare engine into which you can load a variety of dictionaries, which then allow you to perform a variety of functions, such as translating text from one language to another, word definitions or a thesaurus look-up, and, of course, spelling and grammar checking.
That's a lot to do, but Grammatica seems to be able to pull most of it off with relative ease.
Clean interface stays out of you way until you call it.
Fire up Grammatica and it will sit in the background and wait for you to call it forward by hitting a definable key (the default is F2); it will automagically select all the text in your current window for checking and bring up an interface that has three windows: One containing your parsed, offending text, one with a list of suggested corrections, and a window containing an explanation as to why the text was flagged. There are also buttons that let you choose how to handle the problem; you can ignore it by resuming the check, fix the problem by using a selected suggestion, add the word to your lexicon (more on that in a bit), or do some word analysis.
Analyzing words seems geared more for those who need to translate text into other languages; Grammatica lets you find the plural for words, or the verb conjugates; functions a translator or someone new to a language is more likely to use.
Yeah, But, Does it Work?
I used Grammatica on this document, and I found that there are some things Grammatica does very well, and some things that could be improved upon. Let's look at the good stuff first.
Grammatica has one of the cleanest interfaces I've seen in this type of application (I'm actually looking at several at the moment). Its Preferences menu is not weighed down with tons of options, and getting into and using the interface is a breeze.
I'll admit to wanting more selections on how grammar is checked, however. English is a complex language, full of subtleties that depend on context for meaning. The rules of grammar can change depending on circumstance; are you speaking casually or formally? Are you talking to technicians, CEOs, or a group of grandmothers?
As a spell checker, Grammatica works great. I like dusty old words that people seldom use anymore, like lagniappe, riposte, unctuous, desultory, and hirsute; Grammatica's extensive dictionary easily found these, but so did OS X's built in spell checker.
Grammatica also lets you add new words to a user-defined dictionary through a function called 'Lexicon'. When adding a word, the Lexicon function queries you to find out more about the word you want to add, whether it's a verb or noun and so on. Once added, the new word will get correctly parsed and flagged if used improperly.
I like that Grammatica does not directly interfere with the process of writing by throwing up distractive windows with spelling or grammar suggestions. I use TextEdit to write my articles because I want to avoid the distractions applications like Microsoft's Word heap on you. Grammatica is unintrusive, and that's a very good thing.
Now: The not so good stuff.
As a grammar checker, Grammatica leave a bit to be desired. Often, the application gave me cryptic reasons for flagging text. For instance, it might correctly find a problem with verb agreement, but it will flag the adjective, like 'those' in the following sentence:
Normally, the crew of the Enterprise had the Universal Translator handy to listen to what aliens were saying, make contextual references, including cultural, environmental, and differences in species, then translate those references and ideas into words, following whatever rules of grammar that may apply for the listener, and make the ideas understood by all.
and ask, "Did you mistakenly put the selected adjective in the plural?"
Cryptic messagemight just mean there are spelling errors
What? I don't t see a problem.
Then there's my favorite cryptic message:
The sentence beginning with the selected text could not be analyzed by the grammar checker (perhaps because there are too many errors in the sentence).
That message tells me nothing about the problem or problems in the sentence, and adds nothing to the process of fixing the problem; if anything, the message makes the application or its creators seem lazy, if that's possible.
The 'many errors' Grammatica complained about were a few minor spelling errors, which should be flagged and fixed first, I think, before checking grammar. If you 'resume' past this message Grammatica will proceed with its checking, but these cryptic messages come up a bit too often for my taste.
I also found that Grammatica missed several very basic grammatical errors in this document when checked it. [Editor's Note: I also found a few errors Grammatica missed - Editor]
The Bottom Line
Grammatica is designed to do a lot of language related tasks, from translating text to checking spelling in any of several languages, however, I'm only interested in the application's ability to do spelling and grammar checking in English. On that count, Grammatica has many great features that any writer will find useful, but, as a whole, I found the application lacking.
If you have a need to work in more than one language then Grammatica may be just the tool you are looking for. Its clean interface won't add to desktop clutter, which is a big plus in my book. However, I think that English language writers looking for software help might want to look for an application that focuses more on the business of checking grammar in English and offer you a way to pick how your text will be parsed according to your intended audience.
is a writer who currently lives in Orlando, FL. He's been a Mac fan since Atari Computers folded, but has worked with computers of nearly every type for 20 years.
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