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Just a Thought - Good Help Is...Well...


- January 3rd, 2006

Well, for a few weeks now I've been using a grammar and spell checker on everything I write, and I have to admit that I've noticed a bit of an improvement in the technical quality of my writings. I'm using Grammarian Pro X exclusively, and I find that it does a fine job of catching my goofs before you do.

That's not to say that I don't make mistakes anymore, or that my mistakes don't make it to print, but the quantity of my blunders has diminished, and that can only be seen as a good thing.

What I've also found is that there are many grammar and spelling problems even the best software can't handle.

For instance, in the previous sentence, I forgot to put an 's' at the end of the word, 'problem', and Grammarian Pro X didn't notice. I've corrected this, of course, but it points out a difficulty with using any software for things like spelling and grammar; you can become too dependent on the software.

I can spell reasonably well for an adult, and I understand the more common rules of grammar, but, while my mind is up to the task, at least at a high school level, my fingers seemed to have remained in 5th grade: Mrs. Newsome's class.

Mrs. Hillary Newsome was a terror in a tight salt and pepper bun and black horn-rimmed glasses tipped with rhinestones. What's worse was this bane of my life at P.S. 135 knew my mother, which, in those days, gave a teacher carte blanche when it came to discipline.

I won't bore you with the gory details of my run-ins with Mrs. Newsome, nor will I inundate you with stories of how often her ruler met my hands. Suffice it to say that I think I lost my trailing 's' sometime during that year.

I also tend to omit words. In the second paragraph of this article I left out the word 'it' in the portion of the sentence that says, "...or that my mistakes don't make it to print."

Perhaps Mrs. Newsome had a more profound effect on me than I realize; but, I digress.

The problem is that though my grammar checker is very good, it did not find the pronoun missing in that sentence fragment, something that even untrained eyes might easily spot.

Another thing about software help is that, unless it is extremely tweakable, more often than not, that software will get in your way and on your nerves.

A great example of this is Microsoft's Word for the Mac. Here is an application that will do darn near anything you can think to do to a printed word and still have it be a word. MS Word, as some of you may know, has its own grammar checker. I tried using MS Word for article writing because of its extra linguistic features, and, man, was it ever annoying; little things kept popping up to tell me that I spelled this wrong, or forgot that comma. I was paying so much attention to the pop-ups that I would forget what I was writing. Of course, I turned off many of these features, but then I'm left with this bloated whale of an application that does little more than smaller, more efficient apps can do.

Anyone who writes will tell you that when you get into a writing groove you don't want ANYTHING to disturb you. It's as if you've tapped this tenuous vein of creativity, and as long as you can maintain the tap, the good stuff will keep flowing. Interrupt that flow and your creative nirvana is out the window.

For me, writing in MS Word was the same as sticking dynamite in that creative tap and blowing it to Fiji. I came to hate MS Word. Understand that I realize that millions of people use it daily, and love it to pieces; I'm just not one of those millions. The application got in my way, it was far more than what I needed to do my job. I wound up writing in TextEdit, and moving the file to MS Word if I needed more advanced document functions.

I have an aversion to AppleWorks also, but not for the same reasons as MS Word. AppleWorks irritated me because it lacked the features that, oddly enough, I disliked MS Word for having. Where MS Word was the 800 pound gorilla of word processors, AppleWorks was the 98 pound weakling.

Of course, a lot has changed in AppleWorks, and it has become marginally more useful. A better option is to use Apple's new word processor, Pages, which offer a more complete list of features, all done the Apple way.

I'll continue to write as I do now, using TextEdit and Grammarian Pro X for basic composition, and moving to other, more robust apps when I need them. It's a system that works well for me, and the software is basic, solid, and simple.

I found that, initially, Grammarian Pro X had some annoying habits, but these I easily switched off or adjusted to suit my taste; as I mentioned, to avoid being annoying, an app must be tweakable, and Grammarian Pro X is very tweakable. Even so, after a few weeks of having this digital grammar sentinel hovering over my every keystroke, what I found annoying at first has become helpful, but only to a limited extent. I still have to go the extra mile to insure that what I think I've written is, in fact, what I have written.

It really boils down to this: Does being forced to adhere so tightly to the rules of writing proper English have an adverse effect on my style of writing?

What I'm finding is that there is a bit of an adjustment in how I write, and how the grammar checker helps me write. In the end, I think I've preserved my voice, which is the goal. A writer's voice is what separates him or her from others; the last thing I want to do is write like everyone else.

Good software help is fine, if you can get it, and there's enough variety around to satisfy almost any writer's eccentricities. Even so, sticking to the basics and using what Nature gave you will get you a lot further than relying on technology alone.

I suppose that, in a way, I have Mrs. Newsome to thank for that insight.

Now, if I can just get over my fear of wooden rulers...

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.

You can send your comments directly to me, or you can also post your comments below.

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