Tip: If you're serious about improving your writing, one of the best ways is to improve your vocabulary — not so you know how to use big words, but so you can choose the right word at the right time to convey your meaning precisely and simply. To improve your vocabulary, we highly recommend you try the popular vocabulary-improvement software called Ultimate Vocabulary. Click Ultimate Vocabulary for details.*
How Grammar Checkers Work
Simple grammar checkers usually look for wordy, clichéd, or misused words and phrases based on simple text matches. For example, a grammar checker might use a database of hundreds or thousands of words and phrases that writing experts consider poor writing. The database of suspect words and phrases includes alternative words and phrases that the grammar checker suggests you use instead.
More sophisticated grammar checkers check not only for simple text matches but more complex pattern matches as well. For example, a good grammar checker might look at the structure of your writing, detect that you have written in the passive voice, and suggest an active voice alternative.
How Good Grammar Checkers Work
A good grammar checker uses both text matches and pattern matches. In particular, the grammar checker should look common traits of bad writing and good writing. Specifically, the grammar checker should help you to:
- turn negative words into positive words
- turn nouns into verbs where possible
- prefer short words to long words
- prefer understatement to overstatement
- find alternatives to clichés
- remove or shorten "throat-clearing" phrases (such as "It is important to note")
- prefer specific words to vague words
- use modern language rather than archaic language
- identify and edit tautologies (two or more words that mean the same thing)
- identify and correct "eggcorns" (malapropisms, or commonly misused words and phrases)
The grammar checker then processes "rules" under each of these categories. These rules check for not only simple text matches but also complex patterns. An example of a simple text rule is:
- Find: "However"; Replace with: "But".
An example of a more complex rule is the rule that looks for "nominalizations" (phrases that turn verbs into nouns). The grammar checker finds possible nominalizations by looking for patterns that nominalizations typically use. For example, the grammar checker might look for words that end in "-ment", "-tion", and other endings that nominalizations often use; look for weak verbs nearby (eg, "make", "conduct") and prepositions (eg, "of"), and suggest more active verb alternatives based on the structure of the suspect nominalization (eg, "examine" rather than "conduct an examination of").
Limitations of Grammar Checkers
All grammar checkers have limitations. Read about the limitations of grammar checkers before using any grammar checker. Some grammar checkers have more limitations than others. For example, we would stay away from Whitesmoke's grammar checker because its "text enrichment" feature can actually make your writing worse than before. Of the dozen or so grammar checkers we have used, we recommend StyleWriter and RightWriter.
How To Get The Most From A Grammar Checker
To get the most out of a grammar checker:
- check your spelling. If you have misspelt a word, the grammar checker might not find it.
- write a good first draft. The grammar checker works best when you have already got a good draft for it to work on. So, try using the grammar checker only when you are confident about what you have written and you know what you are trying to say.
- think about the grammar checker's suggestions. One of the grammar checker's best benefits is the way it makes you think about your writing. When the grammar checker queries a word or phrase, think about why the grammar checker is suggesting alternatives. Think carefully about the different options and their potentially different meanings.
- improve your vocabulary. As Edwin Abbott wrote in How to Write Clearly (1883), "Verbosity is cured not by a small, but by a large vocabulary". Likewise, to get the most from the grammar checker, you need a good vocabulary so that you know whether simpler alternatives have the same meaning as the word you want to replace. To improve your vocabulary, use tools like Ultimate Vocabulary.
Make sure you exercise your own careful judgement when using grammar checkers. Grammar checkers do not provide definitive results. Take particular care when using the grammar checker on legal documents. (Some words and phrases have important legal meanings. Before changing legal words, phrases, clauses, or documents, you should get professional legal advice).
*We have agreed to receive a commission from some sales of Ultimate Vocabulary because we are happy to endorse this award-winning vocabulary-improvement software.