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Friday, June 28, 2013

Grammar Checking in Microsoft Word – The Computer Isn't Always Right

Today I am pleased to publish my 11th guest blog post. You too can have a post published on my blog. Just read the guidelines HERE. In the meantime, enjoy...

Grammar Checking in Microsoft Word – The Computer Isn't Always Right
By: Lily Bishop

As I've just finished a marathon two-month long final revision and editing of my novel, I noticed quirks in Word that may be causing writers to change their work in ways that make it less grammatically correct or hinder their overall style. Some of these issues may be obvious to you, but just in case you need a grammar refresher, here you are.

Primary Areas Where MS Word Was Incorrect

Fragments - Most contemporary fiction contains dialog full of fragments because people don't talk in complete sentences. Older novels didn't have as much dialog and fragments were rare. In today's "Show don't tell" writing environment, dialog moves most of the scenes along, and it's filled with fragments. I don't hit "Ignore Rule" only because occasionally a fragment happens by accident during editing changes, and this rule helps me catch those.

Comma Use - MS Word is a computer program, not a person, and comma rules are complicated. Unfortunately, more often than not, its advice on comma usage is incorrect. Remember, if you have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, insert a comma before the conjunction. If they are not joined by a conjunction, use a semicolon. If one of the clauses is dependent (it does not have a subject and a verb), then you can use a conjunction to connect it without a comma.

Question Words - Using a question word such as why or how will often trigger MS Word to prompt you to insert a question mark at the end of the sentence. Often it's not a question. For example, one sentence that the grammar checker didn't like was "The why doesn't matter."

Possessive/Plurals - Don't automatically trust Word for possessives and plurals. For example, I used the plural of my character's given name (There were four Lauras in her class). Word went crazy wanting an apostrophe because it thought it was a possessive.

It's/Its - This is a word that many writers confuse. It's is only used as a contraction for the phrase it is. Its is a possessive pronoun. Every time that I run a grammar check, Word flags it's, even though it's a contraction every time. (It may be flagging it because it's a contraction, and it doesn't like contractions.) If you select See explanation, it only says to double-check the definition of the word you're using. However, it doesn't flag that for you/you're, so I'm not sure why it goes crazy over its. I'm convinced that the misuse of its that I see on Facebook and Twitter is because of over-correcting grammar people.

Reflexive Pronouns - If a character refers to herself in a story, she should use the reflexive pronoun (herself). In my manuscript, Word did not like the word herself, but it was correct in every case. So if it flags a reflexive pronoun, don't automatically assume you were wrong.

Fewer vs. Less - Fewer is used when the item can be counted (fewer pills), while less is used when the item cannot be counted (less rain).   

How to Check your Grammar Settings

Click on the start ribbon in Word. At the bottom, click Word Options. Choose the menu item Proofing. The screen will look something like this:

Here is a brief explanation of the options under Settings.

Comma required before last item:  The Oxford comma refers to the optional comma before the and in a multi-part list. For example: The bakery offers cakes, brownies, and cookies for sale. If you include the last comma, choose this option. If you do not like the Oxford comma, leave it unchecked. Interestingly enough, In Great Britain many styles do not use the Oxford comma, while in the United States it is generally preferred.

Punctuation required within quotes: In the U.S., the commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. In the United Kingdom, the placement of the punctuation depends on whether it belongs to the quotation or to the sentence that contains the quotation. I usually choose "Inside."

Spaces required between sentences: If you grew up with a typewriter, you may habitually insert two spaces between sentences. In current style manuals, only one space is preferred due the use of proportional fonts. Use this setting to help yourself remember.

The next section, Grammar, shows each item that the grammar checker looks for. You can select or unselect these.

The last area that you can change is the style section. I couldn't get it to show on all one screen-shot, so here is the complete list:

Clichés, Colloquialisms, and Jargon
Fragment-Stylistic suggestions
Gender-specific words
Hyphenated and compound words
Misused words – stylistic suggestions
Passive sentences
Possessives and plurals – stylistic suggestions
Punctuation – stylistic suggestions
Sentence length (more than 60 words)
Sentence structure
Sentences beginning with And, But, and Hopefully
Successive nouns (more than three)
Successive prepositional phrases
Unclear phrasing
Use of first person
Verb phrases – stylistic suggestions
Words in split infinitives (more than one)

I checked these just for grins, and the most helpful for my editing purposes were compound words. In another note, Word's definition of a passive sentence may just drive you over the edge into insanity.

A Final Word About Editing

After going through a round of editing using the grammar checker, it's a good idea to print your work again and read through it, preferably in a format that you haven't seen before. If you were reading in portrait, switch it to landscape and make the text in two columns like a book. If you have been editing in double-space, switch to single space. Anything that you can do to give the words a new look will trick your mind into thinking it is new material.

About Lily Bishop: Lily Bishop has just released her debut novel, No Strings Attached, available as an ebook on (No Strings Attached)

Lily is a happily married mom of two who writes romantic suspense. In her day job she runs database queries at a university. At night, she thrusts unlikely couples together and watches sparks fly. Lily blogs about writing and publishing at, and can be reached on facebook at and on twitter at @bishoplily.

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